Asking for Love: Stories

Asking for Love: Stories

by Roxana Robinson
Asking for Love: Stories

Asking for Love: Stories

by Roxana Robinson

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Short stories of upper-class domestic life by an award-winning literary talent: “Asking for Love delighted me no end” (Alice Munro).

 Whether it’s a woman who must accept the reality of her son growing up, or a daughter becoming disillusioned with her father, this moving collection expertly conveys the joys, doubts, fears, and endless contradictions that are inescapable parts of domestic life. In “Mr. Sumarsono,” included in The Best American Short Stories of 1994, a visiting Indonesian diplomat brings out the confidence and charm in a suburban divorcée, much to the surprise of her two young daughters; and in “Leaving Home” a teenage girl, stifled by her family’s rigid sense of virtue, attempts to reinvent herself during a summer vacation.
The everyday challenges of parenting, stepparenting, and familial love and loyalty take on great weight as the richly drawn characters of each story—fathers, mothers, children, lovers—face them with genuine need, strength, and confusion. Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Maine, Connecticut, and Long Island, these stories showcase the trademark insight and tenderness with which Robinson explores divorce, remarriage, and families yearning to move on.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504025607
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 275
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Roxana Robinson (b. 1946) is the author of five novels, most recently Sparta; three short story collections; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Robinson teaches in Hunter College’s master of fine arts program and is president of the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers.

Read an Excerpt

Asking for Love


By Roxana Robinson


Copyright © 1996 Roxana Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2560-7


Leaving Home

Every summer when I was growing up we made the long drive from outside Philadelphia, where I was born, to the village of Devon, in western Massachusetts, where my father's family had lived for a hundred and fifty years.

The road to Devon turned off the river road, dropping suddenly down the riverbank, then leveling abruptly for the ancient covered bridge. Our car bumped sedately as it entered the bridge. This was dark inside, with huge crisscrossed beams. Going slowly and majestically through the nineteenth-century gloom, we could hear the hollow wooden echo of our passage.

This ceremonial crossing of the river was the moment I waited for. When we came out of the dark tunnel of the bridge I said contentedly, "Now we're in Devon."

"Now we're in Devon," my father always answered.

We drove up Devon's one steep street, over the railroad tracks, and past the small, neat shops that my grandmother had used: Bates the butcher, the dry goods shop, the grocery store.

"Wallace's is closed," my mother said. The grocery store was always closed by the time we got to Devon.

"We can stop at the farm for eggs and milk," said my father.

The farm belonged to Cousin Thomas, who was the only Thatcher still farming. Four generations ago the family had split: Thomas's great-grandfather had stayed in Devon, and my father's great-grandfather had moved to Boston. Thomas's line had stayed farmers, and the men in my father's line all went to Harvard. They were Episcopalian ministers, like my father, and judges and teachers and lawyers. Now the Thatchers lived all over the Northeast, but they had kept the land. The cousins, more distant with each generation, still came to Devon in the summers.

Cousin Thomas's farm was at the foot of Devon Hill. There were two big, gloomy hemlocks along the road, and a pond below the house for the flock of bossy German geese. The white clapboard house was symmetrical in front, with square pillars and a deep and generous front porch. In back, the house meandered, with lopsided additions. It was built around 1800, and now, in 1970, the shutters sagged, the clapboards showed cracks, and it needed paint.

We pulled into the driveway, next to the house. A flock of bantams with shaggy boots fussed in the weeds.

"Coming in with me?" My father turned sideways to talk to me; I was in the back seat. I could see his Thatcher nose, pointed and severe, his pale blue Thatcher eyes and limp blond Thatcher hair. I have Thatcher looks, like his, and when I was little I liked this. I liked people saying, "Well, I can see you're a Thatcher." It made me feel a part of something larger than myself, part of a gentle tribe, a network that was invisibly spread across these Massachusetts hills. But the year I was thirteen, looking like a Thatcher made me uneasy. Looking in the mirror, I felt like a fraud, as though I were wearing a Thatcher mask I couldn't take off. I looked like a Thatcher but I knew in my heart I was not one.

The Thatcher family was famous for integrity: those judges, headmasters, ministers, were all high-minded and principled. They were models of rectitude. The Thatcher genes carried not just blue eyes but virtue, and when I was thirteen I had become aware that I was deeply deficient in virtue.

My mother turned and smiled at me over the back seat. My mother wore round flesh-colored glasses, which made her eyes pale and vulnerable. She had straight brown hair, very fine, held to one side with one bobby pin. She never wore makeup. Her clothes were unworldly: baggy woven skirts, sturdy comfortable sandals, limp tan cardigan sweaters. Appearances did not matter to my parents; the material world was unimportant. I knew that I ought to feel this way too, I wished that I felt this way, but I did not. When I was thirteen I was deeply, and shamefully, concerned with appearances.

"Go in with Daddy," my mother said, smiling. "You always do."

But that year I didn't want to go into the farmhouse with my father, though I didn't know why. Avoiding my mother's eye, I looked out the window at the dense green sea of corn rising up Devon Hill.

"Maybe Cousin Gloria will be there." My mother offered me the cousin closest to my age, but I didn't answer. My mother said kindly, "Go on. Don't be shy."

This sounded condescending, and I said crossly, "I'm not shy."

"Then what is it?" asked my mother.

There was another silence.

"Sounds like shy to me," my father said, brisk and certain. My father was certain about everything. "Better come in."

"I'm not shy," I said again, crosser. "I don't want to go in, that's all. I don't care if Gloria is there. I don't care about Gloria. I hate Gloria."

And now there was a terrible silence in the car. I had spoken a word that was never used in our household. The sound of it hung in the air — the short explosive syllable, with its fierce aspirate beginning, the powerful black vowel at its center, and the sharp closure, like a hissed threat. The shock of it quivered among us. It was as though I had thrown a rock through the windshield, and we now sat staring at the star-shaped fracture, the damage.

My mother gave a long sigh, her face sorrowful. "I hope that's not true, Alison," she said quietly. She sounded wounded, as though I had struck her in the face, and I knew that was how she felt. "I hope you don't really hate your cousin."

There was another thunderous silence. Brutally, I had betrayed my mother and disgusted my father. My father looked straight ahead now, the back of his neck rigid. My mother watched me, full of concern. They waited for me to answer.

I looked out the window. It was too late to take back the word, which I'd never meant to say in the first place. The word had come out before I thought, and now I would have to pay. I had no defense, no excuses. I never did. I could never argue with my parents: they lived in a separate moral universe from mine. They never swore, or spoke unkindly, or had uncharitable thoughts. My parents were guided by virtue.

I sat in the back seat and wished that God, for once, would take my side and erase the sound of the word from family memory. I told myself that it was just a word, but I was without conviction. I stared out at the jostling sea of green corn, waiting.

In the front seat, my mother sighed again. She said gravely, "What is it that you 'hate' your cousin for?"

I didn't hate Gloria. I hardly knew Gloria.

The farming Thatchers had five children: two boys, Tom and Charlie, and three daughters, Gloria, Karen, and Joanne. I hardly ever saw them. I spent the summers at the tiny club down at the lake, with its two soggy red-clay tennis courts and old shingle-sided boathouse. The farming Thatchers didn't go to the club. Their children were never seen fooling around out on the rafts, or playing tennis on the bumpy courts, or sitting on the tiny muddy beach with sandwiches and soft drinks. Tom and Charlie, in blue overalls, spent their days on slow, thundering tractors, cutting hay and plowing fields, lifting a laconic hand if someone waved from a passing car. I don't know where the girls were, but it wasn't down at the lake.

"I didn't mean I really hated Gloria," I said slowly.

My father turned sideways again. "Then maybe you should not have used that word, Alison." He did not, of course, say the word himself. "That word is very strong," he said. "You should think carefully before you use it. If you don't mean it — and I hope you didn't — then it's not a word you should use." He paused. "I hope you don't really feel that emotion toward your own cousin."

I didn't answer. I stared out the window again so I wouldn't have to look at my mother. My mother, her eyes shining through the colorless glasses, watched me steadily. She was ready to forgive me.

There was a long pause. I knew what would happen. If I didn't answer, if I didn't admit to my crime, we would sit here in silence for the rest of the evening, for the rest of my life. The black sound of the word I had used would hover over us forever. I closed my eyes. The weight of this bore relentlessly down on me.

"I'm sorry," I said.

My father nodded slowly, without looking at me. His face was bleak, and frozen by disapproval. His mouth was drawn in on itself, and his pale blue eyes were hooded and distant, as though I were someone he had never met. It would be hours before he approached friendship, even acquaintanceship. My mother leaned across the car and patted my shoulder. She gave me a brave smile, but her eyes showed damage: She had been wounded.

"I'm going in," my father said. His voice was remote. He got out and shut the door.

I looked sideways at my mother, who nodded urgently at me. She waved me toward the door. I waited a moment, for pride, then got out.

My father stood in the rutted driveway, taking a deep breath of Devon air. I moved tentatively next to him and he turned away, stepping up onto the side porch. A clothesline hung above its railing, wooden pins staggering along its length. Inside the house I could hear a radio — a trashy singer yearning to a sunset-colored melody.

My parents listened only to classical music. Once, in the car, I was rolling the dial along the radio band. I stopped it at a popular-music station, just for a second, as though I were just pausing to shift my grip on the dial. At once a hot red blare of sound filled the car, and at once my father reached over and clicked the radio off. He looked straight ahead, his mouth closed and tight. He didn't say anything. I didn't dare turn the radio back on, even for the news.

My father's footsteps thundered on the porch floor, and I heard chairs scraping inside. We went into the dark mudroom, where in one corner lay a mud-colored dog blanket, flattened and hairy. Faded jackets hung on the wall, tipped-over rubber boots on the floor below them. My father raised his hand to knock, and the kitchen door opened.

"Well, if it idn't Cousin James," said Cousin Florence, her sharp blue eyes seizing on my father. Cousin Florence stood outlined in the doorway. She was small and fierce, with pale red hair pulled straight back into a ponytail. She was thin, with a pointed nose, and small deft hands. She wore a housedress, and over it a faded flowered apron. She folded her lean arms and tilted her head cheerfully to one side.

"Hello, James," Cousin Thomas said, stepping forward and smiling. Cousin Thomas's nose was Thatcher, and his cheekbones, but he was half a foot shorter than my father, his body small and dense. His denim overalls were loose and waistless, like a clown's suit.

Thomas hugged his elbows, but my father put out his hand. Thomas unclasped himself and they shook hands slowly, smiling at each other. Cousin Thomas turned and grinned at me.

"Well, come on in," he said, amused and pleased, and waved us past. The mudroom smelled rank, but I took a deep breath before I stepped into the kitchen.

In the middle of the kitchen was a table covered with red-and-white-checked oilcloth. Battered wooden chairs stood unevenly around it: in two of them sat girls. I saw them out of the corner of my eye. I stood with my head cocked in concentration, my eyes fixed on my father's face as though I had to read his lips.

The farming Thatchers had dinner early, and we had arrived in the middle. Food filled the plates, and in the center of the table stood a pie-shaped piece of sweating yellow cheese. An overhead hanging lamp lit up the table; the rest of the room was shadowy.

"Come sit down, James," said Florence. She stood in front of the stove, her fisted hands set on her hips. She wore thin white socks, limp around her ankles, and her brown oxfords had a dull pale bloom of scuff at the toes.

My father smiled gently. "I'm afraid we can't, Florence. Diana's out in the car, and we're meeting Ted at the house. He doesn't have a key, so I'm afraid he's waiting there. And it looks as though we're interrupting your dinner, so we won't bother you any more than to ask for a few eggs and some milk. We'll bring the can back in the morning."

"A few eggs," said Cousin Florence. She moved to a table where a wide, cracked bowl stood. It was heaped with brown eggs, bits of feather stuck to them. "How many is a few?" Florence asked my father, twisting to eye him.

"Oh, two, I suppose," my father said, not sure.

"Six," I had to prompt him, in a whisper.

He looked down at me. "Six?"

I nodded and he repeated it to Florence.

Florence looked at us and shook her head, grinning.

"Sure now? Six? Or two?" she said.

My father smiled. "Six," he said, nodding. Florence turned again and began to count eggs into a wrinkled brown bag. "Gloria, get the milk," she said, her voice suddenly peremptory. The older girl slid off her chair, staring at me. Joanne, the youngest, in pajamas and a turquoise bathrobe, sat at the table, watching. Her curly hair was in a fine tangle and she held a comic book, forbidden in our house.

"Give them the can," ordered Florence.

Gloria went to the old-fashioned high-legged refrigerator. She took out a tall, silvery milk can and carried it carefully to my father, ignoring me. Gloria had Cousin Florence's small face and her restless blue eyes. Her elbows were pointed. She wore a white lace-edged blouse, unironed, and baggy jeans tightly cinched with a narrow plastic belt.

"That be enough milk?" Florence asked loudly. This was meant as a joke: the can was so full Gloria could hardly carry it.

"I think it will be just fine," my father said, polite.

Gloria came and stood directly in front of me, too close, invasive.

"Hi," she said. She lifted her chin suddenly and scratched under it.

"Hello," I said coolly.

Cousin Florence held out the bag of eggs to me.

"Don't forget the eggs," she said energetically. "All two of them. Or was it six?" She laughed again, staccato. She looked at me more closely and frowned.

"Happened to your hair? Caught in the mowing machine?" She looked at my father, then back at me. My father smiled.

I said, "I had it cut."

Cousin Florence laughed briefly. "I can see that."

"Well, thank you very much, Cousin Florence," my father said. "Thomas." He bowed his head. "And you all are well? The boys? The farm?"

"Pretty good," Cousin Thomas said. Cousin Thomas had a nice smile, small and true. He put his hands comfortably inside the bib of his overalls, like a muff. "Things are pretty good. I can't complain. And you?"

"We're pretty good ourselves." My father nodded goofily, like a marionette. "Well, thank you again for all this," my father said, holding up the eggs like a prize. "I'll bring the can back tomorrow."

Cousin Florence flapped her hand at him. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Children can bring it back. Right, sister?" She stared at me again.

"Come at milking," Thomas said, smiling at me.

"Thank you," I said, smiling stiffly back. I knew he meant this as a treat, and when I was little it had been one. But now what I remembered was the row of dirty-haunched Holsteins with their slimy noses, the concrete gutter behind them clotted with green manure. The heavy-bodied flies everywhere.

When we were back in the car, my mother asked, "How are they all?"

"They were fine," my father said, backing the car out of the driveway. Our house was at the top of the next hill; we would be home in minutes. "Thomas was cheerful. He always is."

"He's good-hearted," said my mother. "So is Florence. I hope she didn't give you all their milk. She'll never tell you she needs any for herself."

"I wonder if she did do that," my father said, slowing the car down. "I wonder if she gave us all their milk. Maybe we should go back."

I sat in the back seat, the cold milk can against my chest. It was freezing, and I could feel the milk sloshing back and forth, nearly spilling each time. I closed my eyes, hoping that my father's conscience would not demand that he go back to the farm and reopen negotiations.

"Did she just give you the can from the fridge?" asked my mother. "Did they pour any off into a pitcher?"

"No," said my father. "They gave us the whole can." He turned the car in at a driveway to turn around. We set off back up the hill to the farm again. This time I didn't go in.

Our house in Devon was built by my grandfather. It was massive and rustic, with rough, dark-stained clapboards. There were huge stone chimneys guarding each end of the roof, and clusters of tiny-paned windows that huddled in groups under the eaves.


Excerpted from Asking for Love by Roxana Robinson. Copyright © 1996 Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Dedication
  • Leaving Home
  • Sleepover
  • Slipping Away
  • The Nile in Flood
  • The Favor
  • Do Not Stand Here
  • Asking for Love
  • Mr. Sumarsono
  • Halloween
  • The Reign of Arlette
  • Breaking the Rules
  • Family Restaurant
  • The Nightmare
  • White Boys in Their Teens
  • King of the Sky
  • About the Author
  • Copyright Page
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