Fourth Conversation With Emily

A warm sunny day at the beach, Neal, sixty-four, a community college English professor, is sitting on a big beach blanket with his daughter Emily, thirty-two, a marriage and family therapist. Emily’s son Andre and Andre’s friend Joshua, both nine, are in the distance, playing Frisbee at the water’s edge.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: No, I don’t think so. They’ve even provided us with puffy white storybook clouds.

Neal: How are you doing in the aftermath?

Emily: I’m okay. A little depressed. Find myself saying less to my clients these days, allowing the silence to speak for me. What do I know about relationships? I know how to start them, but sustaining them is a mystery to me.

Neal: I don’t think sustaining your relationship with Michael had anything to do with you, except that you chose to be in a relationship with someone who had no experience of sustaining any emotional connection to another person until you came along and showed him how.

Emily: Which begs the question: why did I choose to pursue a relationship with someone like Michael?

Neal: Because he’s a wonderful person and you wanted to get close to him. Most of your two years together were fine. Don’t you think?

Emily: Except he was never comfortable with Andre or you, and that always made me uneasy. I kept thinking he’d eventually relax around you, but he never did. He was only comfortable when we were alone, which was wonderful, but I have a son and a father and friends, and he found the inclusion of anyone else overwhelming. He only wanted it to be the two of us.  

Neal: I’m sorry, dear. I hope you don’t think it was all for naught.

Emily: No, I loved being in love and being loved. It was a big healing for me. I’m just sad about not seeing him anymore, though I know it’s for the best.

Neal: I’m sure I’ve told you about Rosalie, but your two years with Michael reminds me of my three years with her, without which I would not have been prepared to sustain a relationship with your mother.

Emily: You’ve mentioned Rosalie, but you never told me you were with her for three years.

Neal: Shall I tell you about her?

Emily: If you want to, I’d love to hear.

Neal: So… other than a high school romance that never went beyond smooching and a brief college fling during which I lost my virginity but learned little about sex, I was at twenty-seven completely inexperienced in the ways of love. I was teaching English at a private high school while slaving away on my doctoral thesis exploring the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis, and sharing an apartment with an ever-changing cast of male characters, most of them graduate students. And then Will Ciardi moved in, we became fast friends, and I became a regular at the pub where Will was a bartender and Rosalie was a waitress.

Emily: And she took you in hand.

Neal: Indeed she did. Rosalie was the most straightforward person I have ever known. The night Will introduced us, Rosalie looked me up and down and said, “Are you involved with anybody?” And when I said No, she said, “Quelle coïncidence. Nor am I. Why not ask me out?”

Emily: But you didn’t because you were too shy.

Neal: No, I did. Right then. And she smiled and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Emily: Where did you go on your first date?

Neal: An Italian restaurant. We shared a bottle of wine, went to her apartment, and didn’t leave for two days.

Emily: Papa. I’m shocked. You never told me that. And then you were with her for three years.

Neal: Three wonderful years. During which time she helped me complete my thesis, we went to Europe twice for two months each time, and I was blissfully happy and she was happy, too.

Emily: Did you want to marry her?  

Neal: More than anything. And she wanted to marry me.

Emily: So what happened?

Neal: I met your mother. Or I should say… your mother arrived.

Emily: You left Rosalie for Mama?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: Was Rosalie crushed?

Neal: Devastated.

Emily: You never told me this.

Neal: And I’m still ashamed for hurting her as I did.

Emily: But you loved Mama more.

Neal: Yes and no.

Emily: How no?

Neal: Your mother was a beautiful powerful alluring woman. We met on my first day of teaching at the college where I teach to this day, and by the time I woke from my bedazzlement, I had left Rosalie and there was no going back, though I wanted to.

Emily: You mean after you and Mama were married?

Neal: Long before we were married.

Emily: Oh Papa, why didn’t you ever tell me this?

Neal: I never had a reason to.

Emily: What’s your reason now?

Neal: I’m not sure. I just had the feeling it might help you.

Emily: It does. Because I’ll always remember the good lessons of loving Michael and being loved by him.

Neal: There. That’s why I told you about Rosalie. Because I remembered the good lessons of loving her and being loved by her, and those lessons made it possible for me to have a good relationship with your mother for as long as it lasted.

Emily: Life can be so sad.

Neal: Sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. Ever changing.

Emily: Speaking of which, how are things going with Karen?

Neal: Fine.

Emily: Do you think if Andre and I didn’t live with you, you’d ask Karen to marry you?

Neal: I am sure I would not.

Emily: Why not?

Neal: Because save for a fortuitous affinity in the sack, we are different as two people from the same society could be.

Emily: How so?

Neal: She’s a compulsive neatnik. Every object on every surface in her house is arranged just so, as if the rooms are soon be photographed for a spread in Architectural Digest. My surfaces, as you know, are otherwise. Her politics are distinctly right of center, mine are far to the left. She is obsessed with her appearance and spends lots of time and money trying to beat back the hands of time, whereas I have only a vague notion of what I look like from one day to the next and don’t give a hoot about getting old. I love dogs and cats; she finds them annoying. I am a gardener and a cook; she abhors dirt and would rather eat at a swank restaurant than eat anything I cook. I like classical music and jazz, she has her radio ever tuned to easy listening elevator music that makes my teeth ache. And so forth.

Emily: Don’t you ever long for something more in the way of a relationship?

Neal: In the absence of you and Andre, I suppose I might. But in the meantime, Karen is a lovely person to be with now and then, and she seems to feel the same way about me.

Emily: Do you ever wonder what happened to Rosalie?

Neal: Often. But I know the last thing she would want is to hear from me again, so I do not seek her out.

Emily: How do you know she wouldn’t want to hear from you again?

Neal: Because I know how much I hurt her. And the last thing I would ever want to do is remind her of my terrible betrayal of our love.

Andre and Joshua return from the edge of the sea and flop down on the beach blanket.

Andre: Mom? Can we have our dessert now?

Emily: Yes you may.

Emily opens the little ice chest and brings forth two ice cream bars for the boys.

Emily: You want one, Papa?

Neal: No gracias. But might there be a beer in there?

Emily: You know there is.

Emily opens the bottle of beer and hands it to Neal, then gets herself an ice cream bar.

Neal: How went the flinging of the disk?

Andre: Fun. Kind of windy. But fun.

Joshua: I’m not very good at it. Andre is, but I’m not.

Andre: You’re quite good, Josh, especially when you don’t have to throw into the wind. Once we got our positioning right, you were great.

Joshua: I’m not a very good athlete.

Neal: Looked good to me.

Joshua: My dad says I’m a klutz.

Andre: You’re not a klutz. You just need practice. I’ve been playing Frisbee since I was a small child. That’s the only reason I’m so good at it.

Joshua: (to Emily) Is there any more of those ice cream bars?

Emily: One more. You two want to share it?

Andre: That’s okay. I’m pretty full. You can have it, Josh.

Joshua: (taking the ice cream bar from Emily) Thanks.

Silence falls.

Neal: So… any travel plans for the summer, Joshua?

Joshua: I think we might go to Lake Tahoe.

Emily: That sounds fun.

Joshua: Not really. I mostly stay in the motel room while my mom and dad go gambling. But maybe we’ll go water skiing.

Emily: Water skiing sounds exciting.

Joshua: Yeah. Do you have any Coke?

Emily: Lemonade.

Joshua: Never mind.

Joshua gets out his phone and starts playing a video game.

Neal: I think I’ll go for a swim. Anybody want to join me?

Andre: (jumping up) I do. You wanna jump in Josh?

Joshua: No. It’s too cold.

Neal: You coming, Em?

Emily: No, I’m gonna stay here and keep Joshua company.

Joshua: You don’t have to.

Emily: I want to.

Neal and Andre head for the water. Emily gets out a book and starts to read.

Joshua: What are you reading?

Emily: These are case studies of people in therapy and how therapy helps them.

Joshua: What’s therapy?

Emily: Therapy is when someone goes to a counselor or a psychologist for help with an emotional problem they’re having. Did you know I’m a counselor?

Joshua: Yeah, Andre told me. You mean like for depression?

Emily: Yes.

Joshua: My mom takes meds for depression.

Emily: Yes, she told me.

Joshua: Are you on meds?

Emily: No. But I have some clients who are on meds.

Joshua: What is a med anyway? Like a vitamin?

Emily: It’s medicine that helps people with chemical imbalances that make them anxious or depressed.

Joshua: What is depression anyway?

Emily: It’s a kind of persistent sadness that makes a person feel exhausted.

Joshua: What’s persistent?

Emily: Persistent means it won’t go away.

Joshua: Oh.

Emily: You know how sometimes we’ll be sad, but then the sadness goes away and we’re not sad anymore. But if the sadness won’t go away, we say it persists.

Joshua: I’m sad some of the time. But not all the time.

Emily: There’s nothing wrong with being sad some of the time. It’s a natural feeling. Everyone is sad some of the time.

Joshua: I’ll be sad when Andre skips two grades. I don’t really have any other friends.

Emily: Well you’ll still be friends with Andre even though he’s in a different grade.

Joshua: Probably not. He’s too smart for me anyway.

Emily: Oh come on. You’re just as smart as he is. Just in different ways.

Joshua: I’m better at video games, but that’s only because he doesn’t get to do it very much because he doesn’t have a phone.

Emily: Not yet.

Joshua: Hey how come you guys don’t even have a television?

Emily: I never had one when I was growing up because my father didn’t want one. He finds them annoying. So I never got in the habit of watching television and never wanted one.

Joshua: Oh.

Joshua resumes playing a video game on his phone.

Emily: What game are you playing?

Joshua: Fight To the Death. It’s the main one kids play now.

Emily: What happens in the game?

Joshua: Well… you’re going through this multiverse and these aliens and cyborgs and monsters are attacking you and you have to kill them before they kill you. And your powers change when you enter a new universe. Stuff like that.

Emily: You have different kinds of power?

Joshua: Yeah, different ways to kill them and dodge them and get past them.

Emily: Like what kinds of power do you have?

Joshua: You have lasers and lightning bolts and stunners and you can fly at different speeds and make yourself invisible. And you have shields and you can morph into different things. Stuff like that.

Emily: How do you win?

Joshua: You just go as far as you can and try to beat your best score.

Emily: You never come to the end?

Joshua: No. There is no end. You just try to get your highest score.

Emily: I see.

Joshua: Do you think it’s stupid?

Emily: No.

Joshua: Then how come you won’t get Andre a phone?

Emily: I don’t want him to have a phone yet.

Joshua: Why not?

Emily: I want him to learn other things first before he has a phone.

Joshua: Like what other things? He’s already smarter than all the other kids. Even if he skips two grades he’ll be smarter than all the other kids. And if he had a phone, then I could text him and he could text me any time we wanted. What’s wrong with that?

Emily: Nothing is wrong with that. I just want him to experience life without a phone for a few more years.

Joshua: But what if he gets depressed because he doesn’t have a phone and everybody else does? Wouldn’t it be better for him to have a phone than be on meds?

Emily: Yes, it would.

Emily stands up to give the returning swimmers beach towels.

Andre: The water was freezing!

Neal: But it felt fantastic!

They take the towels from Emily and dry themselves.

Andre: And now I’m starving.

Joshua: Me, too.

Neal: Let’s go for pizza.

Joshua: (puts his phone away) Now we’re talkin’.


Broke My Heart


Conversation With Emily

Neal, a man in his late forties, is walking barefoot on a vast beach with his sixteen-year-old daughter Emily, who is barefoot, too. The day is sunny and warm, the ocean barely audible in the distance.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: A few feathery white clouds in the sky would be nice. Break up the monotony of the blue.

Neal: Ah yes. Celestial art drifting across the cerulean.

Emily: Hey Papa?

Neal: Yes, my darling daughter?

Emily: Do you ever miss Mama?

Neal: I did for a time, and then one day I realized I didn’t miss her anymore. I still think about her, but I don’t miss her. Do you?

Emily: I’m sometimes keenly aware she isn’t here, but I wouldn’t say I still miss her.

Neal: Why did you ask?

Emily: I wonder why you don’t find a new partner. I thought maybe it was because you still felt wedded to Mama.

Neal: I don’t think so. I think I don’t find a new partner because I’ve never looked for a partner. Your mother, as you know, pursued me, and I think something like that would probably have to happen again. Someone else initiating the proceedings. I’m formidably shy.

Emily: I know. (muses) I wish I could marry you and never have to leave when I get older.

Neal: You can live with me as long as you want, and you don’t have to marry me.

Emily: We are kind of married already. We just don’t sleep together.

Neal: We’re best friends.

Emily: True, but just so you know… I have kind of fallen in love with someone at school. Two someones actually. A boy and a girl. Well… he’s really a young man and she’s really a young woman.

Neal: And are they also kind of in love with each other?

Emily: No. They don’t know each other. But they’re both kind of in love with me.

Neal: Well that’s nice.

Emily: You would be okay with me being in a relationship with a woman?

Neal: Sure. I want you to be happy. Just so long as she isn’t a mass murderer or a Republican.

Emily: In some ways it’s much easier being in love with a woman. For one thing, we don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.

Neal: Oh. Are you…

Emily: Not yet. But we’re talking about it.

Neal: You and the young woman?

Emily: And the young man. We’re all sixteen. It’s what sixteen-year-olds obsess about, among other things. It’s what all the songs we listen to are about, all the books we read, movies we see, etcetera. I don’t know if that was true when you were sixteen, but it’s true now.

Neal: And you’re up to speed on the whole getting-pregnant not-getting-pregnant… system?

Emily: Yes, I’m well up to speed on that system.

Neal: Good. So… let me know if you need money for supplies or…

Emily: (laughs) Supplies? You make it sound like I’m going on an expedition.

Neal: You know what I mean. If you want to consult a doctor about birth control. I’m happy to help in any way I can.

Emily: I was thinking of getting an implant. No fuss no muss. No worry about forgetting to take the pill. Etcetera.

Neal: Well okay. Shall I make you an appointment?

Emily: I kind of already did.

Neal: Kind of?

Emily: Did.

Neal: With Dr. Ornstein?

Emily: No, at the women’s health clinic.

Neal: Great. And I really do appreciate you telling me about this.

Emily: Isn’t that why you brought me here today? To talk about this?

Neal: No. Not… specifically.

Emily: Specifically? That’s… perplexing. And by the way, are we going somewhere or just meandering?

Neal: (laughs) One of the great philosophical questions. Along with: What are we doing here? What is our purpose? Is there any meaning to life? And is there meandering after death?

Emily: At my age I’m more interested in being in love and being loved and stuff like that. So if you didn’t bring me here today to review the facts of life, why did you bring me here today?

Neal: What do you mean? We come to the beach all the time. Why does this feel like I brought you here for some special purpose? Maybe we came here because… we came here.

Emily: Papa, you are so transparent to me. I always know when you have something important you want to talk about.

Neal: Well I don’t know if it’s that important, but it is something I’ve wanted to tell you for a very long time.

Emily: (stops walking) What?

Neal: How we chose your name?

Emily: Mama already told me. I’m named after her favorite poet Emily Dickinson.

Neal: Actually that’s not who you’re named after.

Emily: (taken aback) Seriously? You waited until I was sixteen to tell me I wasn’t named after Emily Dickinson, after I’ve told everyone I’ve ever known I’m named after her?

Neal: Your mother asked me not to tell you, but after she was gone I decided I would. And I was just about to tell you when you bought not one but two Emily Dickinson sweatshirts and spent months on that big school project writing fifty poems in the style of Emily Dickinson, and you dressed up as Emily Dickinson, and you did your hair like Emily Dickinson, and you made those videos of you being Emily Dickinson reading her poems, and so… I just let it go.

Emily: This is upsetting, Papa. Why are you telling me now?

Neal: I’m not sure. Maybe I sensed you were becoming a sexual being and… I don’t know. I just wanted to set the record straight before any more time passed. And I might not have said anything about it today if you hadn’t brought up the whole meandering issue.

Emily: (sits down on the sand) So tell me.

Neal takes a piece of paper out of his back pocket.

Emily: You wrote a speech?

Neal: I copied something out of a book to read to you.

Emily: Is this book the source of my name? The true source?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: What’s the book?

Neal: Larousse Gastronomique.

Emily: That big fat cookbook?

Neal: Larousse Gastronomique is far more than a cookbook. It is an encyclopedia of the history of cuisine, specifically French cuisine.

Emily: I’m named after a French Emily?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: Well that’s not so bad. Unless she was some horrible queen or countess, and even that would be kind of cool.

Neal: I don’t actually know what she was.

Emily: Oh great. I’m named after somebody you know nothing about?

Neal: I know you’re named after somebody who happens to have the same first name as Emily Dickinson.

Emily: Read the cookbook excerpt.

Neal: But first I want to set the scene.

Emily: Which scene?

Neal: The moment when we chose your name.

Emily: Fine. Set the scene.

Neal: So your mother and I had been married for five months. She was eight months pregnant with you.

Emily: She got pregnant before you got married? No one ever told me that either. How do you know I’m yours?

Neal: You have my nose.

Emily: (laughs) I certainly do. Go on.

Neal: So we were sitting on the sofa together one evening and your mother was having cocoa and I was reading aloud to her from Larousse Gastronomique.

Emily: How romantic.

Neal: It was, actually. Food is a very sensual subject.

Emily: Did you do this a lot? Read to her from the big fat cookbook?

Neal: We read aloud to each other every item in Larousse from A to Z. It took us three years. We finished when you were two and a half. You liked to sit at your little table and draw with your crayons while we read aloud from the book.

Emily: That’s so sweet. I guess it is kind of romantic. So read the thing you brought.

Neal: Well we had gotten to the Cs on that fateful night, and I came upon the entry for conversation.

Emily: You mean like what we’re having now? People talking to each other?

Neal: Yes and no. So… (reads) conversation a small pastry with an almond filling. According to the Dictionnaire de l’Academie des gastronomes, they were created at the end of the 18th century, taking their name from the title of a popular work, Les Conversations d’Emilie, by Mm d’Epinay (1774) They consist of covered puff pastry tartlets filled with a rum-flavoured frangipane or with almond cream and topped by a layer of royal icing. The tartlets are decorated with thin bands of pastries crisscrossed over the top.

Emily: I’m named after a tartlet?

Neal: You’re named after Emilie from the popular work Les Conversations d’Emilie. Your mother heard that title and said, “Oh honey, if we have a girl, let’s name her Emily. I love that name.”

Emily: (gets up) And she loves that name because she loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry, so really the title of that ancient novel or whatever it was just reminded her of how much she liked the name. So I’m not really named after that particular Emilie but after all Emilys including Emily Dickinson.

Neal: Except not really.

Emily: Why not really?

Neal: Your mother… (hesitates)

Emily: Tell me.

Neal: Didn’t love Emily Dickinson’s poems.

Emily: But she told me she did.

Neal: She told you she loved Emily Dickinson. She identified with her as an unrecognized poet, as Dickinson was unrecognized until after her death. But your mother didn’t like Dickinson’s poems. They were too rhymey for her.

Emily: Rhyming was the style of the time when Emily Dickinson was alive.

Neal: I know.

Emily: So whose poems did Mama love?

Neal: Denise Levertov. Philip Whalen. Sylvia Plath. e.e. Cummings.

Emily: Maybe I’ll change my name to Denise Cummings or e.e. Plath.

Neal: Emily is a lovely name.

Emily: I appreciate your telling me the truth, Papa. I like the truth. And I have no regrets about my Emily Dickinson phase. I was only eleven and it was a way of staying connected to Mama even if Mama found Emily Dickinson too rhymey, which is not even a real word.

Neal: Ryhmish?

Emily: You’re an ass. Make it up to me somehow.

Neal: Shall we go to Chico’s for fish & chips?

Emily: Yes, and then I will forgive you for not telling me sooner.

Neal: I don’t think you were ready until now. Or I wasn’t ready. Or something.

They set off together across the sand.

Emily: I think it was more about you not being ready than me not being ready.

Neal: I think you’re right.

Emily: You don’t have to agree with everything I say. I won’t bite you.

Neal: So tell me about these people you’re in love with.

Emily: I’m not quite ready to tell you about them. I’m waiting to see if the infatuation lasts more than a couple weeks.

Neal: I remember.

Emily: What do you remember?

Neal: The fleeting nature of infatuation when I was sixteen.

Emily: It’s disconcerting how fleeting it can be. One day I’m insanely in love with someone, the next day I find them repulsive.

Neal: Shall we make a rhyming poem about that?

Emily: Good idea. Shall I start or you?

Neal: You start.

Emily: Oh it’s oh so disconcerting…

Neal: How fleeting love can be.

Emily: How fast the tide can rise and fall.

Neal: How changeable the sea.

Emily: Oh it oh so disconcerting…

Neal: When love becomes disgust.

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching

Neal: Are trampled into dust.

Emily: Oh will there ever come a time

Neal: When love is here to stay?

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching

Neal: Never fade away?

Emily: Some questions have no answers

Neal: Until one day they do.

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching…

Neal: Those dreams they all come true.


Simple Song (Shy)