I never met Wendi Kaufman, but our paths definitely crossed. We probably sat next to each other at a PEN/Faulkner reading hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., where the literary community we shared gathers. We definitely bumped elbows at a book launch or two at Politics and Prose, the independent bookstore we frequent. We may have raised our glasses to the same toast at the publication party hosted by Margaret Talbot at her house for our mutual friend Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Man Alive! D.C. is a thriving literary community but it’s a tiny one, indeed.
I’d heard of Wendi Kaufman long before I learned of her battle with cancer and passing last fall. I’ve even taught “Helen on 86th Street,” published in The New Yorker and anthologized in Scribner’s Best of Fiction Workshops 1998, in my Creative Writing classes at American University. Published by Stillhouse Press, the fourteen brief stories in this collection spark and burn subtly with Kaufman’s wit and moxie.
In the opening short story, “Helen on 86th Street,” for which the collection is titled, young Vita wants desperately to play Helen of Troy in her school play. Vita puts her faith in the power of Greek goddesses, especially Athena. Moments before her stage debut, Vita’s mother delivers this news: “Greek polytheism is an extinct belief…when people stopped believing in the gods, they no longer had their power.” Vita refuses to accept this just as she holds out hope that her father will return. She assembles a burnt offering of three years’ worth of letters written to him. It doesn’t work to bring her dad back, but the spell alters her course. Helen of Troy gets the chicken pox and Vita gets the stage. In the final scene, Kaufman writes Vita’s triumph achingly parallel with her loss of innocence. As Helen, Vita scans the crowd during her final speech, realizes her father will never return, and hears “the beating of swan’s wings, and then, nothing at all.” Vita’s defeat is fated, but Kaufman crafts it with honesty and compassion.
Throughout this collection, Kaufman’s characters are recognizable ones—you know these people, especially the women. Helen might be your niece. Her mother could be your neighbor. Girls come of age and find womanhood bleak. Mother-daughter ties are fragile. Love, it should go without saying, is complicated in Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories. Adultery prevails. Families struggle to reach each other but the distance too great. Mary Kay Zuravleff writes in the introduction, “Wendi’s talent is important because her stories reveal the solidarity as well as the singularity of women.”
In “What Remains,” there is wisdom and ambiguity in women’s distinctive dilemmas packed into a snapshot of an affair followed by a one-night stand. We might expect something tidier out of Ava, a twenty-eight-year-old third grade teacher. “Ava was the type of woman who lost things easily; whole worlds slipped through her fingers at one time or another.” What’s a woman to do in the middle of a rebound when her married lover returns? Kaufman doesn’t declare an easy answer. Sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong choice to be made, simply the necessity of a choice.
Ava knew more about losing, the hollowness felt in the body, the emptiness of what remains. Finding was a different story. It was the other half of the picture. Love and loss entwined, a knotted tangle of grief and desire.
In the end, the reader decides what the lonely Ava might keep and what she might lose.
Loss, then, is inevitable in many of Kaufman’s tales. “Life Above Sea Level” begins in scene with a child being dropped off the side of a boat in the Great South Bay to sink or swim. She almost drowns. The story is told through dated reflections of family memories that add up to family you can’t escape. “I let go and begin to swim where no sea runs, in the strong current of family that always pulls me in toward shore.” These are your people, like it or not, Kaufman tell us; you might as well love them anyway.
They are so much your people, in fact, that the bold second person “you” is evoked in “Talk,” and the reader—willingly or not—is implicated. It’s reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman,” but Kaufman’s story has barroom banter: “You decide getting drunk alone is a cliché and call your best friend. She is a cross between a golden retriever and the Pope—she will follow you anywhere and then forgive you.” The light touch makes the heartbreak go down easier. You’ll be stronger on the other side, Kaufman promises; just hold on until you get there. “You wrap your arms across your shoulders and press them in close to your chest. You pace. There is a difference, you think, between falling out of love and falling apart.”
That Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories was published posthumously is another testament to the legacy of Wendi Kaufman. Stillhouse Press was collaboratively founded between George Mason University’s MFA program, where Kaufman earned her MFA, and the Fall for the Book literary festival. Through working with the press, students experience writers becoming authors, words becoming stories, and stories becoming books. In June, just two months before her death, Kaufman worked urgently with students on design, editing, and outreach to launch this collection—Stillhouse Press’s first. As Joyce Maynard wrote in her elegy to Kaufman, “We are all terminal here. So in the end, what we have is what we have of our lives while we were living them, and what we leave behind.”
I never met Wendi Kaufman, but I wish I would have. Mary Kay Zuravleff, her close friend, assured me that we would have adored each other. I missed the opportunity to know the talented writer and the beloved literary citizen who took much less than she gave.
Melissa Scholes Young
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poets & Writers, Brain Child, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her debut novel, Flood, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2017.
Also from Melissa Scholes Young
Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories by the late Wendi Kaufman is smart, hilarious, heartbreaking, and beautiful. With clean and precise prose, Kaufman has assembled a brilliant collection of short stories about women. The 14 pieces within the book are constructed in layers—story, metaphor, myth, and reflection—built to be both accessible and yet complicated. Her pieces may be read once for meaning and then again for nuance and insight, each ending with a thrilling flourish, tempting a reader to rush ahead into the next piece. But Kaufman's stories deserve to be concluded with a pause, a sigh of release, and a reflection. Though each piece has enough substance to stand on its own, as a collection, Kaufman's stories have a satisfying synergy. When Kaufman passed away from cancer in August of 2014, this debut collection turned out to be the culmination of her life's work. But Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories does not read as a first book. Rather, it is a triumph from a skilled and intelligent writer.
The title story of the collection, "Helen on 86th Street," is about young Vita, a student who desperately wants to play Helen of Troy in her class play and yet is cast as a mere soldier inside the Trojan horse. Vita lives with her mother on 86th Street in New York City and cannot stop dwelling on Helen:
"Helen, again with Helen. Always Helen," my mother said. "You want to know about Helen?"
I nod my head.
"Well, her father was a swan and her mother was too young to have children. You don't want to be Helen. Be lucky you're a warrior. You're too smart to be ruled by your heart."
A few years earlier, Vita's father had left both of them, and ever since, she has been writing letters to her dad—letters she keeps in old shoeboxes. One night, Vita makes a burnt offering of this precious collection of letters to the goddess Athena, asking her to intervene and give her the role of Helen.
As fate would have it, at the class performance, Vita unexpectedly finds herself with the wished-for role. In the final scene of the play, Vita stands tall as the resplendent Helen on the ramparts of Troy, asking for forgiveness and reciting her wrongs of beauty, pride, and the abdication of Sparta:
"Troy, I have come to ask you to forgive me."
I'm supposed to hit my fist against my chest, draw a hand across my forehead, and cry loudly. (My teacher) has shown me this gesture, practiced it with me in rehearsal a dozen times—the last line, my big finish. The audience is very quiet. In the stillness there is a hole, an empty pocket, an absence. Instead of kneeling, I stand up, straighten my tunic, look toward the audience, and speak the line softly: "And to say goodbye."
There is a prickly feeling up the back of my neck. And then applause. The noise surrounds me, filling me. I look into the darkened house and, for a second, I can hear the beating of a swan's wings, and, then, nothing at all.
It's just this sort of personal victory—a victory of self-knowledge, of coming-of-age—juxtaposed against a complex mix of guilt, desire, doubt, and tragedy that haunts many of the mostly female characters that Kaufman writes about.
Like Vita, many of Kaufman's female characters are too smart to be ruled solely by their hearts, but they follow them anyway. Many of them are lonely and helpless and desperate for forgiveness, but they are able to flee their own burning cities, achieving small victories and modest bits of wisdom. Kaufman's women make bad choices, they falter, and Kaufman nudges the reader to sympathize with them and even cheer them on. Although alike in many ways—female, middle class, and American, with ties to New York City and the surrounding areas—Kaufman's characters remain distinct and singular. One is a teenager who lives with her boyfriend and her elderly father. One is a woman working to rekindle a stale relationship. Another, an author of an advice book for women, struggles through the media training required by her publisher. And still another is a college student from a family of psychics who believes she lacks "the gift" of her mother and grandmother. I must admit that each of these women reminds me of someone I already know—women who keep making the wrong decisions, who still have a lot to learn, and yet from whom I find that I can still learn about passion and empathy.
In another of Kaufman's stories, "Still Life," a high school girl named Lucinda witnesses her mother slipping into a bout of paralyzing mental illness. Her mother sits in the same spot on the sofa for almost a week. When Lucinda tells her father, living in a different part of the city, about her mother's mental state, he comes to the apartment to take her mother to get treatment. But Lucinda resists, trying to protect her mom, and her dad accuses her of "acting as crazy as she is." Then, as her father tries to comfort her, Lucinda says, "I wasn't really listening. I was holding my breath as if underwater, watching how the moonlight through our window burned away the shadows." Lucinda knows her mother would have seen this same vision, too, sitting in the same place "night after night, submerged as the growing light rippled across the floor." Though they are mother and daughter, members of the same family, Lucinda wants her father to know that this inheritance does not condemn her to her mother's fate; "there are bulbs that look similar before they're planted, I wanted to tell him, but are nothing alike after they've bloomed." Two years ago, when I became a new mother, I found myself feeling a bit like Lucinda sitting in her mother's spot on the sofa, understanding her yet also not wanting to be her. I had a brand new understanding of my own mother, seeing her in myself. And yet I also hoped (and still hope), desperately at times, that I will bloom differently.
Mothers, daughters, and sisters often appear in Kaufman's stories, and all of these characters are learning about themselves in unexpected ways. Even as they make mistakes or experience heartbreak and tragedy, they grow. One has just had a miscarriage and has been told that she can try again: "Try again?" she thinks. "You don't know how you could ever try again and yet you know somehow that you will. And this feels like hope." Another realizes she needs to move on after her current boyfriend—who doesn't call when he travels for work and rarely texts—has canceled on her again. For the first time she understands that there is a difference "between falling out of love and falling apart." Talking to herself in a new, soothing way, she knows that, one day, this gentle voice will be the only one she hears. Still another of Kaufman's women walks away from a rebound lover when her old lover leaves his wife and returns to her. Familiar with loss, rediscovery is new to her: "the other half of the picture," as she calls it. "Love and loss entwined, a knotted tangle of grief and desire. She walked toward him then, knowing that if she didn't she would never move; she would still be there in the middle of the street, hugging her sides tightly, lost in a middle space, never finding what was within her reach." Again and again in Kaufman's stories, growth comes with pain, love comes with loss, and wisdom comes after a good bit of foolishness and embarrassment.
Through her honest and well-crafted stories of women struggling with others and with themselves, Kaufman has composed a stunning chorus of female voices, both compelling and complex. Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories belongs on every woman's bookshelf within close reach—a volume to accompany her as she herself struggles to find meaning, connection, and identification within her own life.