Picnic After the Flood
by Rachel Cantor
Issue #80 • September 10, 2006•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Roger left notes reminding me that tonight was the night. Mr. Coffee reminded me, Mr. Clean reminded me, there was even a note in my underwear drawer. Instead of dressing up, I pulled my hair off my forehead with bobby pins, put on some baggy chinos, a stained sweatshirt I usually reserved for finger painting.
“You’ll be sorry,” Roger said.
I didn’t think so. Most men bored me. They were too earnest, too nervous, too attached to things of no consequence. They spoke in platitudes, cared about what you thought of them, wanted to be taken care of; their hurt was palpable: they spoke with bitterness about first wives, receding gums, the people or circumstances they blamed for their underachievement, the ways in which life had defeated their expectations. I didn’t think Gorham, my blind date, would be an exception.
I was pacing the study.
“You look like a circus animal,” my daughter said, pausing the video.
Roger had asked Dotty, our favorite babysitter, to babysit, but Dotty was protesting at some embassy that night, so Andi would have to be satisfied with a video, Hungry Man meatloaf (her choice), and a Surprise To Be Named Later.
The surprise being Gorham, whom Andi wanted to meet.
But that wasn’t going to happen: Gorham was very late, and Andi fell asleep watching Betty Boop.
I could see her point.
Rachel Cantor has published stories in The Paris Review, Ninth Letter, DoubleTake, The New England Review, and elsewhere. She has recently completed a collection and is very close to finishing her first novel. She lives in Philadelphia.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
RC: I was revising my novel at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and decided that Gorham had to go. I held a wake for him in which I read from the beginning, middle, and end of his subplot. Some good-hearted writers in the audience insisted that I had a story there. I was doubtful but too attached to Gorham not to try.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
RC: The most difficult aspect of writing this story was finding its shape. In my original conception of the story, Shira is a writer and her response to Gorham’s leaving her is to write a story about Rwanda, using his language and anecdotes—for her, writing this story about innocence lost is the picnic after the flood. I may keep that version of the story in the collection (where I include her story about Rwanda), but a stand-alone piece needed a different ending. Thanks to Hannah for her help with this.
HT: Why did you choose to make Shira an expert in medieval literature?
RC: Shira lived in Rome as a kid and was once a graduate student in Italian studies, specializing in Dante. While she mostly temps now, she’s also an occasional translator from the Italian. The premise of the novel is that she gets a call out of the blue from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who asks her to translate his latest work because of its formal connections to an early work of Dante, which Shira once translated. When he starts faxing her sections of his work, we begin to realize that he has another agenda, one that (of course) involves Shira.
HT: Gorham has elements of a classic romance novel hero, with the muscled chest and noble work, but at the same time he is full of flaws. Did you mean for him to be a new take on this type?
RC: I think Gorham may think of himself as a romance-novel hero, with his enthusiasms and champagne and Keats recitations. But Shira probably sees him more as a tragic hero; she describes him as being like a (presumably classical) athlete at rest, or one of Michelangelo’s “unfinished” slave sculptures, powerful but trapped, captive to his own physicality. His flaws, we have to imagine, will be his undoing: he will always be a boy-child, chasing youth and beauty, never finding love. I think the concept is more Greek than Harlequin.
HT: Do you think there is any way to really bridge the ‘Knowledge-Behavior Gap’?
RC: What you don’t know is that while Dotty comes close to marrying Gorham, she doesn’t. Once she understands his limitations (it doesn’t take long), she lets him go. She won’t knowingly waste her time on someone who isn’t good for her. But she’s a healthier young lady than Shira ever was. At the end of this story, Shira has reason to believe that she’ll always be powerless to resist the wrong guy, no matter what she knows. Stay tuned for the novel to learn whether this is so.
HT: This story is part of a series, all concerning the character of Shira. How many other stories have you written about Shira? And will this turn into a novel?
RC: There are six Shira stories. I started with a series of five; they were supposed to complete my collection, but I was at MacDowell for two months and the final story turned into a novel. Very inconvenient! The series concerns Shira, Ahmad, and Jonah (the painter of Picnic After the Flood) when they’re young and living in Rome, during a weekend twenty years later when Jonah dies, and in the aftermath of that death. The final story in that series will appear in the fall/winter 2006 issue of Ninth Letter. “Picnic After the Flood” is an unexpected sixth story, an unplanned pregnancy, if you will.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
RC: Gorham appeared in the novel more years ago than I’d like to count. It took two years, on and off, to turn him into a story. In the process I deleted yet more scenes, including one where Gorham, naked, wrestles his ex-wife, who’s broken into the apartment to kidnap Eugene...
HT: What are you working on now?
RC: I believe I’m close to finishing the novel. I have lots of next projects in mind, none of which feature Shira or any of her friends.