Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Robert McGill about his writing process.
Nessa was sitting in Hadi’s car, letting the AC run with the engine off, thinking that if the battery died, it served him right for taking so long in the pharmacy, and surveying the main street of Bayfield, which was nearly deserted even on a sunny summer morning, when whom did she see approaching the discount rack outside the clothing boutique but Alice Munro? At least, she was pretty sure it was Alice Munro. The past few years, Nessa had developed a habit, no matter where she found herself, whether on the subway in Toronto or strolling along a Venetian canal on vacation with her mother, of seeing strangers in the distance and mistaking them for Alice Munro. Sometimes they weren’t even women, just smallish men, old-timers with silky white hair and a comportment that recalled the hard-bitten grace she associated with Alice Munro. Whenever she reported these sightings to Hadi, he accused her of being obsessed with Alice Munro.
“Alice Munro, always Alice Munro! How long will it be before a day goes by without you mentioning Alice Munro?”
He spoke at least partly in jest, knowing it was hard for Nessa to avoid the topic when she was writing her Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro. Or, rather, on the works of Alice Munro. Nessa usually made a face when other academics used the name of the author—who was a real person, after all—to stand in for the author’s writing, saying, for instance, “I work on Alice Munro,” which made it sound as if they weren’t literary scholars but chiropractors, and ones with a poor sense of chiropractor-client privilege, overeager to share the fact that they got to crack some serious celebrity back, including the Nobel Prize–winning vertebrae of one Alice Munro.
The idea of Nessa coming across the living embodiment of her doctoral dissertation in Venice had been a stretch, but Bayfield wasn’t so implausible as the site of an encounter with Alice Munro. It was a sweet little town on Lake Huron, the kind of place that often furnished the setting for stories by Alice Munro. More to the point, Bayfield was a 15-minute drive to Clinton, the town where Munro lived, and if you really burned rubber, it was a half hour to Wingham, where Munro had grown up, back when she was Alice Laidlaw, back when the world had little inkling that unto it had been born the future Alice Munro. (Nessa didn’t know why she entertained fantasies of traveling back to Wingham in the ’40s and finding Alice Laidlaw as a young woman and getting to know her, but she did, and it bothered her, because time-travel stories didn’t really fit with her area of study, being a long way from the kinds of things written by Alice Munro.) Was it so hard to imagine that sometimes, on days such as this one, Bayfield might be a destination of choice for Nessa’s favorite writer, a chance to see if the lake was still there, or just a congenial stop on a drive through lands that, over the past half century, had been transformed from ordinary farms, woodlots, and villages into a place now recognized the world over as the everlasting territory of Alice Munro?
Hadi didn’t like it when Nessa referred to Bayfield as territory, making it sound as though the town was no more than literary real estate belonging to Alice Munro. He’d grown up in Bayfield, and by his account, the experience hadn’t been easy, so that the only thing he claimed to want from the place at this stage of his life was to feel that it had furnished material for his own writing, because he was a poet, and a very good one, but still, in the few interviews he’d given, most of them conducted by fellow graduate students, whenever the topic of his formative years came up, the interviewer inevitably wanted to know whether he’d been influenced by Alice Munro. Had he read Alice Munro? Had he met Alice Munro? Given this pattern of questioning, it seemed bad luck that he’d ended up housemates, besties, and occasional fuck buddies with someone whose sole scholarly commitment was to the writing of Alice Munro.
“Besties and fuck buddies is fine,” he’d told Nessa, “so long as you don’t expect me to spend the holidays with you and your mother or do anything else that might falsely imply an interest in contracting myself to a secondhand involvement in Alice Munro.”
He was always like this, cool and standoffish, which was strange, because he was a poet, and along with his proclivity for talking about things like boustrophedon and lipograms, Nessa would have expected him to be more forthcoming about matters of the heart, which surely weren’t the exclusive bailiwick of Alice Munro. Instead, he seemed happiest talking shop, even when it involved Nessa’s research, though he expressed nothing but disdain for the short stories of Alice Munro.
“Don’t you feel,” he’d once said, “that all her characters are basically, in the end, versions of Alice Munro?”
“Basically, in the end,” Nessa had replied, “we’re all versions of Alice Munro.”
Despite Hadi’s dislike of Munro, he’d been obliging when it came to giving Nessa rides to Bayfield on weekends, even though his mother and sister had moved away from the town not long after he’d left for university, and even though his sole remaining relative in the place was his father, for whom he betrayed perhaps even less affection than he did for Alice Munro. His father, who owned Bayfield’s only pharmacy, apparently didn’t betray much affection for Hadi, either; at least the way Hadi told it, that was not because the man disapproved of Hadi’s lifestyle, given that he didn’t know about the drugs and alcohol, but because as an undergraduate, Hadi had jumped ship from biochemistry to the slowly leaking dinghy that was English literature, and because he kept company with people who investigated not cures for cancer or compostable plastics but Alice Munro. Nessa had met Hadi’s father only twice, and briefly on each occasion, but now that she thought of it, she was struck that he probably saw her as symbolizing everything distasteful about his son’s life, and she wondered if this might be why Hadi kept bringing her to Bayfield, not just because, as she kept impressing on him, she was jonesing for a meet-cute with Alice Munro.
Over the past two years, various individuals, some of them good friends and some of them people she’d met minutes earlier at parties, had suggested to her that she consider developing an interest in authors other than Alice Munro. The only time she’d taken the suggestion seriously was at a book launch in Toronto the previous fall, when it had been proposed that she take a look at the work of Michael Ondaatje, but the suggestion had been made by Ondaatje, who seemed biased, and also, he was, no matter how many good things one could say about the man and his books, no Alice Munro.
As Nessa stared at the woman checking out dresses that nobody else had wanted to buy all summer, she started to doubt whether it was actually Alice Munro. Exiting the car seemed the way to know for sure, and Nessa needed to move fast if she was going to have a chance, but she hesitated, daunted by the possibility that she was about to meet Alice Munro. What did you say to Alice Munro? Maybe, after all of Nessa’s yearning for this moment, it wasn’t right to meet her, not if Nessa aspired to be a proper literary critic, someone who wouldn’t let her personal feelings about authors impede her assessments of their work, someone who could stay objective and speak the unvarnished truth about literature by anybody, whether some anonymous medieval shepherd or, well, Alice Munro. But what the hell; how often did you sit in a car and see Alice Munro?
She opened the passenger door as quietly as she could, keen not to spook Alice Munro. Jesus, what was she thinking; it wasn’t a deer, it was Alice Munro. And oh my God, it really was Alice Munro. As the woman stood at the discount rack, rubbing the sleeve of a gingham dress between her thumb and forefinger, Nessa could see the piercing blue eyes and cocked eyebrow that she had, some time ago, come to think of as a distinguished combination, because anyone lucky enough to have them thereby looked rather like Alice Munro.
Unsure of what her opening move would be, Nessa decided just to walk up and improvise her first-ever words to Alice Munro. It still seemed unfathomable that Munro could be standing there, bargain-hunting for wardrobe refreshers, living an ordinary life, or at least one as ordinary as life could be if you were Alice Munro.
“Excuse me,” said Nessa, “but are you Alice Munro?”
“Alice Munro?” replied Alice Munro. “Fucksake, do I look like Alice Munro?”
As she said it, she winked, and though her choice of phrasing had been unexpected, her eyes shone exactly like the all-observant eyes of Alice Munro.
“Well yes, a little,” said Nessa, winking back and trying for the same ironic tone that had just been modeled for her by the one true Alice Munro.
“Yeah, I know, I’m fucking with you,” said Alice Munro. “You’re the third tourist this week to tell me I look like Alice Munro.”
“Wait,” said Nessa, “are you saying you aren’t Alice Munro?”
Before there was time for an answer, Hadi called out a greeting that seemed intended less for Nessa than for the woman, who, with each passing second, began to fill out around the middle, and whose hair began ever so slightly to darken, looking less and less like Alice Munro’s.
“Hadi!” said the woman, and suddenly Nessa felt that this person had sure as hell better not be Munro, because Nessa didn’t think that any part of her and Hadi’s relationship—not the friendship, the housemateship, or the fuckbuddyship—could survive the discovery that all this time, he’d been on a first-name basis with Alice Munro.
“Hey, Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, going to hug her, and now Nessa didn’t know what she’d been thinking, so little did the woman actually resemble Alice Munro.
“Hadi, you’re so grown up, I barely recognized you,” said the woman who was now very obviously not Alice Munro. “Did you know,” she said, turning to Nessa, “that this young man once wrote the best high-school essay I ever graded—and, the subject, as a matter of fact—”
“Let me guess,” said Nessa with a scowl, “it was Alice Munro.”
“Yes, Alice Munro! Hadi, would you believe that this young woman just mistook me for Alice Munro?”
“Would you believe that she’s writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro?” said Hadi, appearing eager to divert attention from what Mrs. Irvine had just revealed about his secret history with Alice Munro.
“A whole dissertation on her,” said Mrs. Irvine in wonder, as if she figured you could get, at most, a chapter from the topic, maybe two if you considered the influence of Shakespeare on Alice Munro. “In my day,” she said, “it wasn’t an option to study Canadian literature, much less Alice Munro.”
“Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, “I’d love to chat, and I appreciate, honestly, what you said about my paper on Alice Munro. But, in fact, Nessa here has been keen to meet her, and I’ve just found out from my father that tonight, we’re going to be having drinks at his place with, drumroll please—”
“For Christ’s sake,” said Nessa, “don’t tell me it’s Alice Munro.”
Hadi broke into a grin and nodded, triumphantly mouthing the paired words of confirmation, somehow as startling as they were familiar: Alice Munro.
You’ve been selling drugs to Alice Munro for 40 years. That’s what you say to people when the chance presents itself to you. It’s a violation of the pharmacist’s code for you to tell people she’s a customer, but you say she probably wouldn’t mind, because you don’t identify which drugs have been involved, and anyhow, the joke is one that she herself first made to you.
You were surprised the first time she turned up at the store, because she doesn’t live in Bayfield and there’s a perfectly serviceable pharmacy in Clinton. You aren’t a fan of that place yourself, because its inventory doesn’t match yours, and because the owner always calls you Mr. Nazem, knowing very well that’s your first name, not your last, and knowing well enough, too, that the nickname annoys the hell out of you. In fact, you wonder whether it was the man’s assholery that brought Munro’s business to you. It wasn’t, however, her stated reason, the first time she approached you. Just back from a trip to Australia, voice gravelly from strep throat, she explained that she’d found herself saddled by a certain renown because of writing books, an outcome that was fine and lucky in its way but sometimes inconvenient, and although she knew that pharmacists were supposed to be discreet, she thought it best, to safeguard her privacy, if she were to fill prescriptions outside of Clinton, in Bayfield, with you.
You swore never to betray her.
You must have promised something similar to Mama on your wedding day. You once told me that she and you exchanged no vows, just repeated three times that you accepted each other, but I bet the imam at least wrangled a promise to be faithful out of you. You must have done some thinking on the promise, if not that day, then later. You must have felt like shit about yourself.
How many times did you cheat on Mama before she caught you? You made it seem like you were the virtuous one by agreeing to couples counseling. Mama didn’t want Nabila and me to know that the two of you were going, but you went ahead and told us anyhow, as if expecting us to praise you. I wonder, though: Did anything the counselor say get through to you? I guess there was that one time, after I walked in on Mama in the kitchen, shouting at you. After she’d gone upstairs, you explained to me how, according to the counselor, when you’re fighting with your spouse, they’re liable to fly into a rage if they hear themselves being described by you.
“You should always start your sentences with ‘I,’ not ‘You,’” you told me, in a tone apparently intended to suggest hard-earned wisdom, though to me you just sounded smug. “Explain your feelings and how things seem to you.” You gave me this advice like it was the secret to a happy marriage, like you and Mama weren’t in the process of drafting a separation agreement.
Now there you are, still living in that rinky-dink house, the guardian of a family history that I doubt anybody treasures, except maybe you. It breaks my heart a little, the thought that after everything we went through there, the house and its memories, its trove of knickknacks that never became heirlooms, might mean something to you. Maybe they don’t, though, and you just can’t be bothered to move, because it would inconvenience you. You certainly haven’t done anything to maintain the property. As Nessa and I approach the front door, the paving stones are cracked, the lawn’s grown shaggy, and the shingles are so curled that a decent storm could bring the roof down on you. The one time I commented on the state of the place, you joked about me eyeing my inheritance, and I said that wasn’t very funny of you.
You open the door even before we reach the porch, and I don’t want to think that you’ve been standing there awhile, waiting to greet us, nothing better to do. Your bald head shines in the evening light, the wound on the crown exposed in order to heal. You’re following the doctor’s orders, leaving it uncovered, though it must embarrass you. I try to avoid staring, not just because it hurts to think of you undergoing an operation, but because you’ve told me a few times lately that a susceptibility to melanoma is something I might get from you. You’ve said it out of care, I know, but each time, I’ve heard you laying down a curse. It’s a relief that I’m not expected to ask about the wound or show concern for you. You’ve downplayed it, so I’ve downplayed it. You’ve just called it a growth, so I’ve done the same.
Once Nessa and I are inside, Nessa hugs you, even though she barely knows you.
“You’ve arrived before our guest of honor,” you say. “Let’s sit in the living room, and I’ll get something to drink for you.”
You look surprised when Nessa hands you the box of caramels she insisted on bringing. She seemed so pleased with herself when she told me they were halal that I didn’t have the heart to say it doesn’t matter with you. You take them and thank her. You don’t mention your diabetes. You do say she can keep her shoes on inside the house, which was never once, in 18 years of my living here, an option you presented to me.
In the living room, Nessa and I sit on the sofa across from you. You’ve changed something about the room, but I can’t put my finger on it. Your eyes flit nervously between us and the window, keeping an eye out, I guess, for Alice Munro. You’ve already forgotten about our drinks.
“You want to dig into the caramels?” Nessa says, hinting to you how hospitality is supposed to work. You shake your head and say you’d rather save them for later.
Could the idea of hosting a Nobel laureate be unsettling you? You seemed so happy when I asked you for the favor. I knew agreeing was a big deal for you, since you and Munro aren’t exactly chums, but the request didn’t appear to bother you. You looked pleased to do something for me, as happy as I was to do something for Nessa, easy with the idea of making the call and issuing the invitation, especially when I said it could just be drinks.
You aren’t usually one to be nervous. I used to wish that your self-confidence was something I’d learn from you. You were so impatient with my lack of eye contact, my stuttering speech. You, who were always so sure of yourself, knowing everything and everyone, claiming to possess more local secrets than Bayfield’s three doctors combined, because they each served a mere third of the town, while you served all of it, and plenty of folks clammed up around their physicians, holding them in too high regard to be forthcoming, while you were just a guy from Iran with a charming smile and the good business sense to put on a sympathetic face when people started unburdening themselves. You had the sense, too, to keep things to yourself, letting details slip out only at dinner years later, once the person had died or moved out of town and, as far as you were concerned, released you of your obligation. You never told us anything about Alice Munro.
Your anxiety must be obvious even to Nessa, because when she addresses you, she does so in a soothing way that I wouldn’t expect from her right now, not when her own nerves must be fraying.
“You don’t know how much it means to me that you arranged this,” she says. “I hope it’s not an inconvenience to you.”
“No, not at all,” you reply, “I’m very happy to do it for you.”
“I didn’t realize,” says Nessa, “that Munro was a friend of yours.”
You give a little smile. “You know, I wouldn’t quite say we’re friends. When someone does business with you for a few decades, though, they get to know you. You maybe feel a closeness to them.”
“You feel close to Alice Munro?” I say. There’s an unintended harshness in my voice, and I cringe at how easily the old knee-jerk teen contempt returns, but it has never much fazed you. You seem to accept such moods as the price of having a son.
“You think that’s a strange thing to say?” you ask, still smiling. “I suppose it’s not the closeness of friends—not like the two of you.” You look at me as if you have me all figured out, as if you know about the on-again-off-again mess of my life, not only with Nessa but in all things, and then you turn to her, apparently happy to leave me aside. You have more to say about your closeness to Munro, I can tell, but I don’t want to listen.
“Sorry,” I say, rising, “but I get this uncontrollable need to use the little boys’ room whenever the talk turns to Alice Munro.”
“It’s true,” says Nessa with a laugh, “tonight’s going to be hard on you.”
You laugh, too, as if you find nothing more hilarious than the thought of my manic incontinence.
Upstairs, your bedroom door is closed, which is unlike you. I don’t know what compels me to open it and walk in, but I do, and right away I’m hit by the scent of aftershave, work sweat, the smell of you. I keep on going, inspecting the room for traces of you. Your laundry hamper’s full, the bed’s unmade, and a thin film of dust covers the surfaces. Still sitting atop your dresser, after all these years, are the mortar and pestle I made from clay in grade three for you.
You must be getting sloppy as you near retirement, because you spent years hectoring us not to waste electricity, and now the light in the en suite bathroom has been left on. As I go to turn it off, I glimpse myself in the mirror, and for a second, I can’t help it, I picture my head gone bald and my eyes pinched by crow’s-feet as pronounced as yours. You were 45 when I was born, and I hope I have a long time yet before I turn into you, but already I can see how it will work, like something you orchestrated a long time ago.
Then I spot the second toothbrush in the cup, nestled next to yours.
The anger that swells in me would frighten you. I tell myself to relax, to act like you. You wouldn’t like what I do next, though: I reach down to press my thumb against the bristles of each brush in turn, and I find they’re both wet. Not a usual one and a spare, then, but two people’s—his and yours.
I go to the closet next, where, sure enough, I find clothes that don’t belong to you. You’ve let him, whoever he is, use Mama’s side.
This time, then, it’s not just a fling with a cottager or a bachelor farmer who hit it off with you. It’s been almost six years since we left you here, and I guess the statutory waiting period has ended, so that the house can finally be given over to whoever’s with you.
Downstairs, there’s still no sign of Alice Munro.
“Has she come over here before?” Nessa asks you.
You say she hasn’t, and then, for some reason, you admit to inviting her today only because I asked you. After this confession, I expect Nessa to say that I never should have made such a request, but instead she just frowns at you.
“You think maybe we should call her?” she says. “You know, to make sure she’s all right?”
You reply that you don’t have Munro’s number here at home.
“You have it at the store, though?” Nessa says. “We could go in with you.”
You seem to consider it but shake your head.
“You might wonder how I’ve suddenly gained compunctions,” you say, “but I worry she’d think me too persistent—”
“Oh, yes, of course,” says Nessa, “that’s very right of you.”
“You know she’s not really coming,” I hear myself declare.
You and Nessa turn to me with a shared look of bemusement.
“You never actually invited her, did you?” I go on. “You just said you did so you could get us over here. You’re always complaining that I never come by.”
You look at me like I’m crazy, and it’s true, I don’t have a shred of evidence to back me up, at least not beyond the indisputable absence of Alice Munro.
“She could be sick,” says Nessa, sounding uneasy, “or she might have a flat tire, or she could have forgotten where you—”
“You don’t have to make excuses for him,” I say. “You see what you’ve done, Baba? You think it’s funny, playing with Nessa’s feelings?”
Your eyebrows arch. “What’s gotten into you?”
My breathing comes fast, and it only gets worse when I consider the likelihood that at any second, the doorbell will ring, and standing on the porch with a modestly priced but thoughtfully chosen bottle of wine will be Alice Munro.
“I think I’ll go outside to keep watch,” says Nessa, getting up and heading for the door, “and you two can talk among yourselves.”
You stand, too, and start to apologize for me, but Nessa says it’s fine and leaves. My eyes travel over everything in the room but you. You’re starting to say something when I finally realize what’s different about the place: The framed photographs of our family that used to sit on the bookshelves and mantelpiece have disappeared.
“You got rid of our photos?” I exclaim.
Your expression turns sheepish, which makes it worse. I would have preferred a front, a lie, something to let me stay furious with you.
“You shouldn’t take it the wrong way,” you tell me. “Every day, I think about Nabila and you.”
“You don’t think about Mama, though,” I say, pouncing. “Your family doesn’t include her anymore.”
You grimace, and I glance at my watch.
“It’s after eight,” I say, “and no Alice Munro. If you want to stick with your story about inviting her, fine, but you don’t really think she’s coming, do you?”
You shrug. “Why would I lie to you?”
“Baba, I can’t read that mind of yours. You’re an enigma.”
I wait in vain for a protest from you.
“Anyhow, Nessa and I should go,” I say, “so your new boyfriend can come back to you.”
My eyes meet yours. You don’t look surprised by what I’ve said, and I wonder whether you could hear me checking out your room.
“You send him down the street or what?” I say. “Is he waiting for a call from you?”
“You can stop this now,” you say. “I’m not hiding him from you. I just thought that tonight, with the fuss about Alice Munro—”
“You figured you could cover things up like in the good old days.”
You stiffen, and I know I shouldn’t have said it. Those times were hard on you. They weren’t fair to you. You must sometimes speculate, as I do, about how much better your life could have been, how much easier it would have been for you and Mama both, if you’d been born 20 years later, maybe even 10.
“You’re right,” I say, “I’m sorry. It’s not my business; it’s yours.”
If I were a different son and you a different father, this would be the moment when I’d hug you. I have this thought, and then a second later, I’m being wrapped up in those long arms of yours. You feel thinner than I remember, and at least for the time you hold me, you’re not the figure who inhabits half of my mental real estate; you’re just a fragile fellow human creature. You squeeze me, and I swear, I should be living better in this moment, trying to make sense of it, but all I find myself thinking is what would happen if the door were to open and we were to be found in this position by Alice Munro.
Finally, I detach myself from you.
“You think I should see if Nessa’s all right?” I say.
You nod. “Tell her I feel bad about Alice Munro.”
“I’ll tell her, Baba,” I reply, “but honestly, I don’t even know if she really wanted to meet Alice Munro. Don’t they say it’s better to keep your heroes at a distance from you?”
You wave me toward the door.
“You’re a good friend to her,” you say. “You really think she’ll be all right?”
You look relieved when I say I do, and then you lapse into contemplation.
“You’ll be all right too, habibi,” you say at last.
I don’t know how to reply, so I just stare at you. You and Mama always seemed so miserable that for years, I made it a priority to seem fine in your vicinity. I don’t want to know that the fact of me not being fine is, after all this time, so visible to you.
“You’ll be okay,” you repeat. “You’ll write about this.”
You take in my reaction and grin, knowing you’re right.
“You think writing about it will make me okay?” I ask.
As I say it, I begin to realize the implication in that statement of yours. You, who were always so proud of my poems until they started being about our family, are granting me permission to write about you. Or maybe not granting it, exactly, so much as accepting that I can’t help writing about you, if not always wanting to be right there with you, sharing your space, then at least wanting to be one door over, next to you.
The sun had set, and Nessa had mostly given up hope of meeting Alice Munro. Every time a car turned down the street, she still felt a shot of adrenaline, but each one continued on by, its windows changed to mirrors under the yellow streetlights, so that Nessa couldn’t even try to see whether any of the vehicles carried Alice Munro. It would be funny, in a way, if one of them did, and Munro had just written out the wrong address, or maybe she’d gotten cold feet at the last second and driven right past the house, feeling as anxious as Nessa did about the idea of an evening devoted to awkward conversation between one of the world’s great writers and, as Nessa would proudly admit to being on any other occasion, one of the all-time fangirls of Alice Munro.
The truth was, though, that her mind was only half-committed to Alice Munro. Her thoughts kept returning to Hadi and his father, and maybe it wasn’t her beeswax, why Hadi had acted like that, or what the two of them were talking about now, but by coming here with him, she’d become part of it somehow, and if she couldn’t stop thinking about them, well, this could be what people meant when they said you dance with the one who brung ya.
Given that Nessa had never corresponded with Munro, it was pretty much impossible that the woman could have her number, but still, when her phone vibrated as she stood there on the porch, her first reaction was to think it was Alice Munro. Turned out it was her mother, texting to ask how things were going, as if she had her eye on the clock, sitting there alone in her Toronto townhouse, carefully imagining, step by step, how the night might progress for her only child as she rubbed elbows with Alice Munro. Nessa never should have told her about the evening, but she’d been so excited that she’d texted the news without really thinking, and she’d done it with pleasure, delighted, not for the first time, that she had merely to press a single letter for her phone to autofill the words “Alice Munro.” Now, faced with her mother’s text, she decided not to reply, because if she confessed that Munro hadn’t turned up, there’d be a barrage of messages, maybe an offer by her mother to drive to Bayfield, and, quite possibly by the end of the night, an all-points bulletin out for Alice Munro. Nessa slipped her phone into her pocket and returned her eyes to the street, trying to see it as Munro would see it, but she found her mind wandering back to herself and Hadi rather than Alice Munro.
They weren’t a couple, and Nessa always told people that this fact could be blamed on him, but in truth, he wasn’t the only standoffish one, and maybe their casual approach suited her as much as him, in the same way that maybe it suited her to be so obsessed with Alice Munro. If she said as much to Hadi, though, he’d ask why it suited her to be that way, and she didn’t have an answer, except to say that she probably needed therapy, but instead of getting it, she’d likely just go back to looking for answers where she’d been finding them most reliably until that point, which was in the stories of Alice Munro.
Alice Munro wouldn’t take in the houses lining the far side of the street and see just houses. Alice Munro wouldn’t stand there and think only of herself. Alice Munro would look beyond the facades of the gimcrack Tudors and postwar bungalows, beyond the garden sprinklers and the dog walkers. She’d escape the straits of her own tiding ego, and somehow she’d find a way to link everything together, interfolding the objective and the subjective, irradiating the material with the ethereal, until people, places, and happenings that had once seemed separate were revealed as inextricably, inexhaustibly connected, so that joining her in figuring out how you were the same as someone else, how you differed, and how you affected each other could turn out to be a whole life for you.
Nessa had this thought, and then the thought that she needed to stop measuring herself against Alice Munro.
Behind her, the front door opened and Hadi came out to stand beside her, looking toward the street in the way you do when there’s no real hope in it for you. He asked if she’d seen any sign, and when she said she hadn’t, he seemed authentically bummed out, though she knew his disappointment had to be on her behalf, not because he held high expectations of Alice Munro.
“Listen,” he said, leaning against the porch rail, “I’m sorry for accusing him like that, right in front of you. I don’t know why I said it, and I don’t know why she hasn’t turned up, but I hope it’s not too hard on you. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe we should start asking emergency rooms if they’ve admitted any Alice Munros.”
She smiled but didn’t say anything, because for the first time in as long as she could remember, she found herself not wanting to talk about Alice Munro.
“You know, I think your father’s a pretty nice guy,” she said instead. “You’ve been a little hard on him, maybe, the way you talk about him with me.”
“He’s okay,” said Hadi, “but keep in mind that he was putting on his best face for you.”
“Was it for me,” she said, “or was it a warm-up for Alice Munro?”
He laughed in the way you do when you know a friend’s trying to make you laugh and you want to oblige them, to reassure them that things will be all right for the two of you.
“You have any idea what’s going on with that scab on his head?” Nessa asked. She’d been alarmed to see it, because Hadi hadn’t mentioned it before, and it looked serious, bad enough for her to wonder whether the man should be hosting drinks for anybody, never mind Alice Munro.
“Sorry,” said Hadi, “I should have warned you. It’s nothing; he just had a growth removed, but that meant taking off a bunch of skin and what have you.”
Nessa said she hoped he’d be okay, and that if she was being honest, the sight of it had been strangely comforting, giving her something to worry about other than Alice Munro.
As soon as she said it, Hadi glanced at his watch, as if that had become a reflex whenever someone said “Alice Munro.”
“You’ll be thrilled to hear she’s an hour late,” he said, “so it’s pretty safe to say she isn’t coming. You up for finding her house in Clinton and setting it on fire?”
Nessa said that sounded fine, as long as they made sure the place had been vacated by Alice Munro. They were just bantering, but as she spoke, she realized that without her being aware, in the span of the past hour, something had turned for her, something she couldn’t put a finger on, but something that meant the next few years of her life had become a road gone dark, a derelict house with the shutters blown open, because suddenly she doubted her commitment to working on Alice Munro. All at once, her life seemed to have fallen away, like a booster rocket plummeting to Earth, and around her was the weightlessness of space, without sound or atmosphere, only a cold void that cares for no one and makes no acknowledgment of you.
“You okay?” said Hadi, breaking her train of thought.
“Yeah, sure,” she replied, “why wouldn’t I be fine, when I just had the honor of being stood up by Alice Munro?”
She told him she was ready to leave, but she didn’t want to go without saying thank you. As they turned to head back inside, she considered telling him that she was thinking of writing her dissertation on somebody other than Alice Munro. And also, she’d say, I think it’s time we had a conversation about me and you. Besties are forever, and buddy-fucking is fine, but what are we doing here, what do you want from me, and what, all this time, have I been wanting from you? You never knew how such conversations would go, but she thought the two of them might be able to handle it, with the stress of waiting now over and the dark country roads to soothe them on the drive ahead.
She’d just stepped into the house with Hadi behind her, and she was looking ahead to the kitchen where his father stood in a rectangle of light, taking glasses from the cupboard, when a voice called to them from the driveway and she froze, a tingle shooting down her back, though she knew the voice wasn’t Alice Munro’s. It was a man’s, and when she turned to look, it was, in fact, a man who stood there, gray-haired and lavishly love-handled with a sweet smile, the smile of a sensitive stranger who needs to ask something but is reluctant to bother you.
“You must be Hadi,” he said, climbing the porch stairs and reaching out his hand.
Hadi stood there as though unable to process the fact that this wasn’t Alice Munro.
“Did my father text you?” When the man said he had, Hadi smiled and shook his hand, adding, “You really were just around the corner, weren’t you? You’d better come in.”
“You’re Nessa?” the man asked, shaking her hand too. “The one who works on Alice Munro? I’ve heard a lot about both of you.”
“You have?” said Hadi. “Because I haven’t heard so much about you.”
“Well, maybe we can change that,” the man said, “although I worry I’m going to be a letdown after you were expecting Alice Munro.”
As they went into the house together, Nessa held back from saying that she no longer worked on Alice Munro. Later, there’d be time for her to ask Hadi who this guy was, and what the hell she’d write her dissertation on now, so she just went with them into the kitchen, where Hadi’s father had already poured the drinks, and still she felt that someone was missing from the scene, that it was the kind of situation you’d understand better if it was described to you by Alice Munro.
Nessa got out her phone and saw she’d received a dozen texts from her mother, the last one ending “Where are you?” Her mother, who always wrote texts as though they were letters, with capitalization and apostrophes, and who expected you, in turn, to spell out every word when you wrote “I love you.”
“It’s all good,” Nessa texted her, “but there was no Alice Munro. Heading home soon, turning off the phone—telling you now so I don’t worry you.”
She switched the phone off, and when she gave her attention back to her companions in the kitchen, she discovered that the man from the driveway was talking about his and Nazem’s attempts at jogging together on a Couch to 5K program, which promised nine weeks to a new you. Nessa wished that someone had told her his name, especially when he knew hers, which meant she couldn’t say, “My name’s Nessa, by the way, what’s yours?”
You could probably spend your entire life trying to figure out a way of being good to both other people and yourself, adding a bit of loyalty here, a touch of betrayal there, never getting the balance right. At least for the next few minutes, she might try just listening and watching, hoping for an acuity of vision that she seldom felt she had, except when sitting alone with a story by Alice Munro. You slipped out of yourself, then, and got partway into the head of someone else. She thought she might try it in real life, listening to the man from the driveway talk, observing how Hadi nodded with his arms crossed, seeing how his father edged almost imperceptibly closer to the man from the driveway as he spoke—and for a time, it seemed to work; she felt herself both there and absent from the scene, but then the man from the driveway turned to her, and she realized that plans never panned out the way you hoped when they depended on others’ actions, not only yours. You never knew what people were going to say or do next. You never knew when they were going to call on you.
“So,” the man from the driveway said, “why don’t you tell us about yourself?”