Fifth Conversation With Emily

Emily, thirty-five, a marriage and family therapist, and her son Andre, twelve, live with Emily’s father Neal, sixty-seven, a community college English professor. On a lovely sunny day in May, Emily and Andre arrive home in the late afternoon and find Neal still dressed for work in suit and tie, sitting on the deck with Niko, a big friendly ten-year-old mutt. Andre comes out on the deck to greet his grandfather.

Andre: Hi Poppy. We didn’t think you’d be home yet. (sits in an adjoining deck chair) We got Chinese takeout to celebrate Mom’s big success and cheer me up. We got Kung Pao Chicken and Snow Peas with Black Mushrooms and Shrimp Chao Fun.

Neal: Sounds fabulous. What’s made you so blue?

Andre: We just had my interview at the Waldorf high school and they don’t want me.

Neal: Why not?

Andre: Well, it’s not entirely true to say they don’t want me, but they are adamant I can’t finish high school there unless I first go through Waldorf Eighth Grade and all four years of their high school.  

Neal: Because?

Andre: It’s a different system than public school. A different way of learning, and since I’m only twelve they would want me to become accustomed to the Waldorf ethos and have their entire high school experience which they say has nothing to do with how smart you are. It’s more about psychic and spiritual growth specific to my age, which actually sounds pretty good to me, but… I just want to be done with high school.

Emily: (coming out on the deck) I explained he’d been largely homeschooled and skipped four grades, but they were adamant he should do five years with them.

Andre: So I think I’m going to home school for another year, pass the high school equivalency exam, and then take classes at the community college. I can’t possibly survive another year at Woodbury High. It’s like a prison. The classes are idiotic, and Desmond and Caroline are my only friends, and we’re just a pod of little freaks there.

Neal: I’m sure you’re not just little freaks there. But this is momentous news. And it coincides with my news.

Emily: What’s your news?

Neal: (gets up) Before I tell you, and before you tell me about your great success, I’m going to change my clothes and have a beer. I got home five minutes before you and I’m still in the throes of wonderment.

Emily: I’ll get you a beer. You want anything Andre?

Andre: Yeah. I’ll have a beer, too.

Emily: How about some kombucha?

Andre: With a shot of Kahlua.

Emily: Stop.

Andre: (follows her into the house) In Ireland kids my age drink beer.

Emily: Yes, but we don’t live in Ireland.

Andre: We should move there. Or France. I’d love a glass of wine.

Emily: Fine. I’ll give you a little glass of wine.

Andre: (excited) Really?

Emily: Emphasis on little. As in tiny.

Andre: Oh my God. (shouting) Poppy! Mom is giving me a tiny glass of wine.

Neal: (from his bedroom down the hall) Excellent. Sip don’t gulp.

Andre: (to Emily) This is so exciting.

Emily: And it will not be a regular thing.

Andre: No, no, of course not. Absolutely never more than once a day.

Emily: We are speaking of the occasional ceremonial taste.

Andre: How exotic. Shall we burn some sage?

Neal: (arriving in sweatshirt and loose trousers) Yes. Let’s burn some sage to usher in the new era of our lives.

Emily: (handing Neal a beer) New era? Tell us more.

Neal: Well… Andre home schooling again and… (pauses momentously)

Emily: And?

Neal: Shall we return to the deck? Such a lovely day.

They carry drinks and an old ceramic bowl full of sage out onto the deck and set the bowl on the table. Andre lights the sage and passes his small glass of red wine through the smoke.

Andre: Blessings on the new era.

Emily: Tell us, Papa. The suspense is killing me.

Neal passes his bottle of beer through the sage smoke and takes a drink.

Neal: There is a very good possibility that five weeks from today I will teach my last class as a full-time professor at the community college, and possibly my last class ever.

Emily: (shocked) What? You just told me a few days ago you wanted to teach until you were seventy-two.

Neal: That was before Janet Escobar, the charming new president of the college, assembled the eleven members of the faculty who are over sixty-five and asked us to please retire now rather than later. Generous severance packages were offered, and save for Archie Fitzgerald who called Janet an ageist idiot, we all agreed to consider her offer.

Emily: Well… it is ageist.

Andre: And I was going to take your classes.

Neal: I suspected something like this was in the works when Janet took the helm. Nine of the eleven of us are long past meaningful functioning, and I knew the new administration was keen to youthify the faculty.

Andre: Youthify? Is that even an actual word?

Emily: No. But you know your grandfather loves to verbify nouns.

Neal: A noble calling. Verbification. A field of endeavor you might want to consider, Andre. Not lucrative, but deeply fulfilling.

Andre: So does this mean that someone resembling you will be free to be my homeschool teacher for the next year or so? And teach Desmond and Caroline, too, if they want to homeschool with me?

Neal: If I retire, yes.

Emily: Is Karen retiring?

Neal: Oh yeah. She’s thrilled. So are most of the others. And the more I think about it, the more appealing retirement sounds, though after the meeting, Janet took me aside and whispered, “But not you. Please. Not you.”

Emily: What’s that about? Does she fancy you? She’s a bit young for you, but she is a dish.

Neal: I agree about her dishness, but I seriously doubt she fancies me. No, she had to include me, and Diana, in the cattle call or it would have been a terrible insult to the others, asking them to retire but not me or Diana.

Andre: Who is Diana and what’s a cattle call?

Neal: Diana is the Drama department incarnate in a single ageless wonder, and a cattle call is a show biz term that refers to an audition open to everyone, not just a select few.

Emily: So that means you don’t have to quit if you don’t want to.

Neal: No one has to. But the offer is there and it’s a very good one. And I do grow weary of correcting essays written by people who spent twelve years in school yet still don’t know how to write complete sentences, let alone coherent paragraphs.

Andre: Why don’t they want older people teaching at the college?

Neal: Because they think most of us are out of touch with the nineteen and twenty-year-olds composing eighty per cent of our student body. And if you knew the nine teachers they want to get rid of, you would agree with their assessment.  

Emily: I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say.

Neal: Yeah, I know. It’s a shock. (to Andre) How do you like the wine?

Andre: The taste is dreadful, but I’m enjoying the… the… oh what’s the word? (giggles) I can’t think of it.

Neal: Buzz?

Emily: Are you dizzy?

Andre: No. I’m… everything seems to be kind of flowing together. The various separate things are not so distinct from each other as they were in my sobriety.

Emily: I think you’ve had enough.

Andre: Oh come on, Mom. I’ve only got another sixteenth of an inch to drink. But I see why they say don’t drink and drive. I wouldn’t want to ride my bicycle feeling like this, let alone drive a car. I do see the appeal though. Certainly smooths the rough edges.

Emily: Listen to you. What rough edges do you have?

Andre: What do you mean? I’m a twelve-year-old about to enter my senior year of high school. I’m surrounded by giant goons who push me around whenever the fancy takes them, and gorgeous young women who think I’m adorable or invisible or merely freakish. I hate school and school takes up most of my life. Is that enough rough edges for you?

Emily: I’m sorry, dear. I really am. We should have had you in Waldorf from the get go but we didn’t have the money then. And now we have the money and they want you for five years.

Neal: Well then I’ve decided. I’m retiring from the community college and will henceforth be your teacher until further notice.

Andre: Great! This is the happiest day of my life.

Neal: Mine, too. I was sick of teaching there.

Emily: You weren’t sick of teaching there when you went off to work this morning whistling a happy tune.

Neal: I felt safe teaching there. I was afraid not to be teaching there.

Emily: (going inside) I’m gonna set the table. I’m starving.

Andre: (to Neal) But first we’ll have the summer off. Right? We’ll start our formal studies in the fall.

Neal: The truth is, Andre, you could pass the equivalency exam now. You could have passed it two years ago. So what is it you formally want to study?

Andre: Desmond and Caroline and I are all keen on Music, Literature, and Cuisine. And Frisbee. And Geography. And Cinema. And Biology and Astronomy and Anthropology and Theatre, of course.

Neal: We shall ponder the possibilities and create a curriculum including Mendelssohn, Miles Davis, Dickens, Wharton, Kazantzakis, Shakespeare, and Larousse Gastronomique as cornerstones of your educational edifice.

Andre: Sounds wonderful, Poppy. But for now… I don’t feel very well. Is that the wine?

Neal: Yes. That is your body wanting water. Alcohol dehydrates. Go have a big glass of water and then we’ll take you-know-who for his you-know-what.

Niko perks up, suspecting a walk is in the offing. Andre goes inside to get a drink of water and Neal has a little cry before he joins Emily and Andre in the kitchen.

Emily: (to Andre) Feel better?

Andre: (belching) Now I do.

Emily: Charming. (to Neal) You’re sure you want to quit, Papa?

Neal: I’m sure.

Emily: Well then I’m glad. If anyone deserves a nice severance package, you do.

Neal: Maybe I’ll take us all to England.

Andre: To Ireland where I can legally drink beer! And then drink lots of water.

Emily: Sounds wonderful.

Neal: But first I must gird my loins for another five weeks of labor at the place where I have toiled for thirty-seven years. Astounding but true.

Andre: Three times my age and a year.

Neal: Shall we walk?

Andre: We shall. You coming Mom?

Emily: I want to, but I’m starving.

Andre: Eat a handful of nuts. That’s what you always say to me.

Emily: Good idea.

Emily has a handful of nuts and they go for a walk, Andre holding Niko’s leash as they stroll along.

Neal: And now my darling daughter, tell us of your great success.

Emily: Well two things happened today that made me glad I became a therapist, not that I wasn’t already glad, but there are days and weeks, as you know, when I’m not sure I’m doing anybody much good.

Andre: But not today.

Emily. No, not today because one of my clients told me she has finally ended the abusive relationship she’s been in for eleven years, and she said she could never have done it without me. She was radiant and happier than I’ve ever known her to be.

Neal: Bravo! That outshines my news by a mile.

Andre: And that’s not all.

Neal: There’s more?

Emily: There is. A couple I’ve been counseling for two years who came to me unable to speak to each other and about to be divorced, asked me today if I would come to their remarriage ceremony.

Neal: That’s fantastic. (gives Emily a hug) I’m so proud of you.

Emily: I never thought they’d stay together, let alone fall in love again. But they really have. They just love each other now.

Andre: How did you do it, Mom?

Emily: After our first session, during which they almost killed each other, I saw them separately for several months, then together and separately for several more months, and then together for the last four months. And they both learned to talk about their feelings and really listen to each other, and they stopped comparing themselves to each other and to other couples, and they really got to know each other and like each other, and they fell in love again.

Andre: Wow. Maybe I’ll become a therapist.

Emily: I thought you wanted to be an actor.

Andre: I do. Caroline and Desmond and I are going to have a theatre company and be a famous team of movie stars. We’ll write and direct our own movies and plays, and I’ll be a therapist.

Neal: Good idea. Why limit yourself to just one occupation?

Andre: We also want to have an organic avocado farm and a café featuring entrees from around the world.

Emily: Oh to be so young again.

Neal: Wouldn’t it be just grand.

Emily: To think the world has no limits.

Neal: And start a rock n’ roll band.

Andre: And now that I’m done with high school…

Neal: Who knows what you might do?

Emily: We only know that when we get home…

Andre: We’re having Chinese food.


What You Do In Ireland


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.


What You Do