FINALIST FOR THE FRANK O’CONNOR SHORT STORY AWARD
NOW WITH AN ADDITIONAL STORY
Heralding the arrival of a stunning new voice in American fiction, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This takes readers into the minds and hearts of people navigating the unsettling transitions that life presents to us all: A father struggles to forge an independent identity as his blind daughter prepares for college. A mother comes to terms with her adult daughter’s infidelity. An artist mourns the end of a romance while painting the portrait of a dying man. Brilliant, hopeful, and fearlessly honest, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This illuminates the truths of human relationships, truths we come to recognize in these characters and in ourselves.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Robin Black’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Southern Review, and the anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction. The winner of many awards and a recipient of fellowships from the Leeway Foundation and the MacDowell Colony, Black is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.
Read an Excerpt
At seventeen, Jack Snyder’s daughter is slender- faced and long of limb and still able to startle her father with her seeming certainty about everything she thinks. They’re driving along roads he doesn’t yet know, on their way to meet her first seeing-eye dog, and she is wearing polka-dotted sunglasses, a long jean skirt, and a shirt with the words: “If you can read this T-shirt, maybe YOU can tell ME what it says.” A kid from her school ordered them, in the dozens, and Lila bought three in different shades. “You’re sure they aren’t identical?” she questioned her mother at the time. “I don’t want my teachers thinking I never change my clothes.”
“Believe me, Lila,” Ann Snyder said. “I don’t want your teachers thinking you never change your clothes either.”
As Jack scans the road for signs, Lila is proclaiming to him in those certain tones of hers that if it weren’t for being quite so blind and having to have one, she’d definitely never get a dog. Never. Never ever. And her father is trying to follow her, trying to respond appropriately; but thoughts of Miranda Hamilton compete with the girl’s words. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning her jeans the night before, sliding them down her thighs, stepping panty-clad from the denim pooled at her feet. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning his suit pants, leaving them bound around his legs until he kicked them off. Miranda’s cropped blond hair fading into soft, colorless down along the back of her neck. Miranda laughing as she filled her mouth with bourbon from Jack’s glass and held the fluid there, smiling while it drizzled from her lips until he kissed her and swallowed it himself. Miranda whispering to Jack, her mouth still whiskey damp, just to lie back, lie still, while she moved her hips in something close to perfect circles over him. Just lie still. Just lie still. Just lie still.
“Really, Dad, they’re so obsequious,” Lila says, and Jack has to remind himself what they’re talking about. Guide dogs. They’re talking about guide dogs. “The whole alpha-male pack-mentality thing. Cats don’t give a shit about anyone, right?” Her father swerves around a pothole, and senses her sway beside him, unprepared. It’s an early- spring day and they are into the long weeks between the damage done by ice and snow and the repair work to come.
“That’s certainly their reputation,” Jack says. “Cats are undomesticatable. Too wild.”
“I find that infinitely more appealing.”
Jack nods silently, an assent he knows his daughter cannot see.
“Maybe I could have the first ever seeing-eye cat.” Lila crosses her arms. “Some real haughty feline with attitude.”
“You mean like you?”
But his daughter shakes her head. “No.” She turns her face toward the breeze of the open window, lifting her sunglasses. “No,” she repeats. “I’d want a guide cat who really doesn’t give a flying fuck.” She draws an audible breath through her nose. “Manure?”
“We’re in farm country now.” He says it quietly, as he looks around outside. Rolling hills of tilled soil settle dark brown against the clear blue sky. Occasional red barns dot the land, appealing in their melancholic disrepair. The scenery is picture-postcard beautiful, but he keeps that to himself. For now, anyway. Later in the day, maybe after dinner, he’ll call Miranda. And he’ll tell her all about how lovely the landscape looked; and then maybe he’ll tell her once again how painful these moments of unshared beauty can be. Standing in the farthest reaches of his backyard, he’ll hold his cell phone close against his mouth so he won’t have to shout and he’ll close his eyes as he describes to her again how solitary he so often feels with his sightless daughter by his side. How among all the things for which he might feel guilt, there’s always this one mountainous inequity: that he can see and Lila cannot.
“Is it pretty?” Lila asks.
“We’re out in the sticks. It’s okay.” He pictures Miranda pacing her kitchen, phone in hand, running an exasperated hand through her hair. This isn’t your strength, Jack. You have to learn to let go.
“Yeah, I figured as much.” Lila turns her head his way. “Are there cows?”
“A little way back there were. Black Angus, I think. Big and dark.”
“Sounds nice, Dad.” But Jack only murmurs a neutral sound, and Lila turns away, facing forward again. “The thing is,” she says, “I just can’t imagine raising a dog and then giving it away. Even if I don’t much like dogs, it still sounds like an elaborate form of masochism.”
“It’s a . . .” But Jack can’t find the word he wants, and he’s pretty sure he’s just missed their turn. “Dammit, I think we’re lost. No, wait, this must be right. It’s a good deed,” he says. “It’s something these guide dog people want to do. He’s your dog and they know that from day one. So they don’t get attached.”
“Yeah, right, Dad. Do you really believe that? That you can just tell yourself not to get attached? You don’t seem so thrilled about me going to college. Why didn’t you just tell yourself not to get attached?”
“Very funny.” But she’s right, of course. Who is he to assume anyone can tell themselves what to feel? He’s always been unable to tell his heart a goddamned thing. “Very clever, Lila,” he says. “But it’s the system. It’s how this guide dog business works. And since we benefit from the system for once, I’m not going to argue with it. Here we go. Sharp turn left . . .” He gives her the warning and at the edge of his vision sees her brace herself for the curve, hands gripping her seat. “Hang on, babe. This looks bumpy. Dirt road.”
“I think I can handle it. Bumps in the road are my speci-al-i-ty.” Lila has her head turned to the open window again, holding the door, her thick dark curls flying in the breeze. “Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” she says, “but I actually like the smell of manure.”
“No.” Her father draws in a deep breath of the sour, full air, savoring the simple fact that they’re smelling the same thing—a relief from all the sights they never share. “I agree with you, baby. It’s a strangely pleasing smell.”
“And, by the way, so is skunk.”
“Absolutely,” he agrees, remembering the pungent, oddly twisting scent of Miranda’s sweating skin. “Absolutely,” he tells his daughter. “So is skunk.”
Lila was six, playing in the garage of a neighboring family the Snyders didn’t really know, when an aerosol can of orange spray paint blew up in her face; and for a long time after that, many years, Jack was stuck on that one simple fact—on the tenuous, fleeting nature of the acquaintanceship. Almost as though the same accident, with the same result, in the home of a close friend would have somehow made more sense. But none of it made any sense, of course. He knew that. You could turn the thing around, replay it endless times—and you would. You would. And you would. And you would. But none of it made any sense at all. There you are one fine October day, living your life pretty much as you had planned, your lawyer’s shingle hanging up, white and shiny, outside your solo practice downtown; tranquilly married to your wife of eight years, whom you’ve managed still to love, though so many of your friends have clearly, even openly, tired of theirs; doting on your six-year-old daughter whom you adore, with the not so secret sense that she’s a little prettier, a little smarter, and a lot more special than other people’s kids; enjoying your smug, self-congratulatory thoughts about the way fatherhood refocuses priorities. Long gone are the days when you were known as a bit of a skirt chaser, back in the single years; the days when anything held the same appeal as tossing a ball in the backyard with your kid. And then a fucked-up aerosol can of orange paint blows up in your daughter’s face. In the garage of a boy she doesn’t really know.
The first few weeks flew by in waiting rooms filled with cold cups of coffee and shifts of relatives taking turns. Bits and pieces of news were conveyed by strangers who came to him fresh from delving into his child’s face. Some good: the eyes wouldn’t have to come out. There were deep cuts on her jaw, but they would fade over time. She had been knocked unconscious by something that had fallen off the wall—a wheelbarrow, Jack eventually found out. And this was excellent news too, the doctors said. This would limit Lila’s memory of what they called “the event.”
But then in the center of it all, whatever salvage might be found among the wreckage, there was the conversation, the now-inevitable talk Jack began having with his daughter, six years old and emerging so untidily from all the anesthesia, all the painkillers, emerging so he could tell her, not once but many times, that she would never see again. Six years old, he would think as he spoke the words. She doesn’t understand forever. She can’t imagine what “never again” really means. And of course a part of him didn’t want her to, as he sat on the edge of her hospital bed, touching her continually so she’d never feel alone in the dark, caressing her constantly—for himself as much as her. So neither of them would feel alone. While Ann stood just outside the doorway, listening as though she were eavesdropping, retreating even then into the fears that would engulf her as if less frightening than real life turned out to be. And Jack repeated the truth to his girl—because that’s what the psychologists had cautioned him to do. Never lie. Never lose her trust. But have the conversation again, again and again, until the child understands, as no six-year- old should have to do, exactly what forever really means.
“This is it,” he says, pulling into a long, rutted drive.
Looking up at the small ranch house, set on stilts, Jack frowns at the empty flowerpots that line the porch rail. An old bicycle leans against the front window. “Not really,” he says. “Not somewhere I’d want to live, anyway, though someone else might find it quaint, I suppose.” He should be used to being her eyes. He shouldn’t even notice doing it by this time. But in the car, as he peers at this nondescript house, he can feel himself resisting her questions, as he does more and more when there’s a matter of taste involved. Is he handsome? Are the flowers pretty? Nice place? Does she understand how often these are matters of opinion and not of fact? Realize how likely it is that if she could judge these things for herself they might disagree? Does she ever guess how very injured and myopic a filter he has become?
“It’s a small place,” he says. “It’s reddish and a little run-down.”
A tall woman steps out onto the porch and waves what looks like a powerful arm. Jack waves back, out his window.
“Come on,” he says to Lila. “It’s showtime. Look’s like she’s here.”
“Giddy-up,” she responds, lowering her glasses again. “As long as we made the trip, let’s do this thing.”
When he told Miranda how much he hated the idea of Lila getting a guide dog, she accused him of balking at letting Lila grow up. She said he was resisting the idea of her transferring her needs and her dependencies onto someone else—even a dog. “Same old, same old, Jack,” she said. “You are way too attached.” Jack was visiting the café where she worked, catching her at odd moments between her customers. “You’re so identified with her. It would be good for you both if Lila could lean on someone else.”
But at home that night over dinner he tried not to think about that, dismissed it as psychobabble, only said something vague about feeling unsure, not having a gut sense that this was the right move to make. Introducing such a huge change into their lives. About it being a long- term commitment—a phrase that caused Ann to stare pointedly his way. Exactly what would you know about keeping commitments, Jack? Lila claimed to hate what she called “the whole geeky blind-girl thing with the dog who snarls at everyone but me.” And Ann eventually confessed to having her own concerns, to a recent fear of large dogs, which caused Jack to throw his own exasperated look at her: Exactly what is it that you aren’t afraid of, Ann?
In the home of a blind child, it turned out, a marriage could easily enough dissolve in unwitnessed pantomime. Ann and he could be giving each other the finger through every meal, for all Lila knew. And at times, they had come pretty close.
“It isn’t the most important consideration, I understand,” Ann said in her quiet, steady tones, so suffused with control that the effort itself was like a second, twining voice. “I probably shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Poor Mommy.” Lila reached across the kitchen table to pat her hand, and Ann moved it for her to find. “Who said parenthood wasn’t hard?”
The college counselor at school was adamant, though, and ultimately persuasive. “It’s the best way to do college,” she said. “It’s the best way to do adulthood, in fact,” she added, reaching to pet the heavyset creature lying beside her feet on the gray carpet, as Jack watched Ann shift in her chair, away from the dog. “You don’t want her living with her parents for her whole life,” she stated—startling Jack— as though that were clearly true.
She handed Ann a card with two agency names, and Ann then passed it on to Jack, a move he recognized all too well. Everything from phoning for take-out to planning vacations to calling in someone to see if their lacy-leafed maples should be sprayed—all these were increasingly his to do, as his wife retreated ever more steadily into her phobic state.
“Would you like to compare coping mechanisms?” she’d asked him once, when he let fly his rapidly growing anger at her rapidly shrinking world. “Yours versus mine? What’s her name, again? Amanda? Miranda? Would you like to have this conversation? Or should we just keep trying to help each other stumble through for a few more years? For Lila’s good?”
Stumble. It was the obvious answer. They would stumble through, of course.
Jack picked one agency over the other by no more scientific means than the fact that the first one’s phone was busy; and the agency whose phone wasn’t busy put him onto Bess Edwards. “She has her own methods, but they work,”
the agency man said. “She’s a dog woman through-and-through.” Jack repeated the phrase to Lila just to hear her laugh and describe what she thought a through-and-through dog-woman must be like.
Reading Group Guide
1. The title of this book is If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. What are some instances in the stories of people deciding which secrets to tell and which to keep? What goes into these decisions? For example, in “Immortalizing John Parker,” why does Clara finally tell Harold about her affair? In “Tableau Vivant,” why does Jean hide her stroke from her family? What are impacts of these choices?
2. Several of the stories are about women in their sixties or seventies. Clara in Immortalizing John Parker, Jean in Tableau Vivant, and Kate Rodgers in The History of the World are all dealing with the absence – or impending absence - of a long time partner, but each of their situations is very different. We’re told that Kate would have preferred losing her husband to death than to another woman. What do you think Clara and Jean would say about that? What kind of conversation might these three women have?
3. The book depicts more than a dozen marriages—some successful, others not. Which of the couples seem happy to you, and which do not? Do the stories share a common message about what makes for a happy marriage, or does it seem to be more unpredictable than that?
4. Every one of these stories is about a loss of some kind, yet there are almost no scenes in which anyone cries. Why do you suppose that is? With what other actions does Black demonstrate grief? Did you identify with the ways in which one or more of her characters experienced loss? Discuss.
5. These ten stories were written over an eight year period. Do you have any guesses about which were written earliest and which most recently? What makes you think so?
6. What do you think happens to the characters in the minutes and days after the stories end? For example, near the end of “The Guide,” Jack learns that Lila knows exactly what’s going on with her parents, but the story is over before they have a chance to talk about it—or not talk about it. What do you imagine their ride home will be like? And in “Pine,” what happens next between Claire and Kevin? If she wants another chance at a romance with him, will he risk it? Should he?
7. Black pays a lot of attention to the houses in which these stories unfold. Why do you think she describes them in such detail? What do the houses tell you about the different characters who occupy them?
8. None of the characters in this book are painted as entirely virtuous. It seems like everyone has made their share of mistakes along the way. Are any characters made out to be all bad? Which of them would you want to share a meal with? What would you ask them, if you could? Which would you rather not meet?
9. There are some pretty upsetting situations in these stories, yet the characters don’t seem to have lost their ability to hope. What kinds of things keep them going? In “Immortalizing John Parker,” why does Clara decide to paint the portrait as Katherine Parker wants her to? In “Tableau Vivant,” why does Jean keep the bare root roses that she forgot to cancel? In “Harriet Elliot” why does the narrator feel “something like belief” on her last day at school? Discuss what you think this collection suggests about the capacity in people to survive loss.