Volta by Diana Senechal


Diana Senechal

When we were young, we fancied ourselves grey, Adam the world-weary dreamer, I the worker. We met at Ashley’s, where we both scooped ice cream earnestly one summer. He had flunked an English class at Yale (he could have gotten an A if he had just done the reading) and was attending summer school for a remedial credit; I was laboring my way through a communication major at the University of New Haven, scraping together any jobs I could find, seizing every scrap of free time for study, and hosting a music show once a week at WNHU. I paid my own tuition with loans and a scholarship. Flunking a class was not in the picture. But Adam intrigued me with his floppy, lackadaisical ways.

He was schooled and versed in suffering: the late-night news crossed his lips at the start of each shift. “Did you hear about El Salvador?” he asked once. A bit of a language geek, I nimbly pointed out the difference between “Have you heard of” and “Did you hear about,” trying to shift the topic. But no, he wasn’t having it. There had been another massacre by army troops. “Yes, but what about your homework?” I asked. He glumly told me that he was supposed to write a sonnet but couldn’t get his mind off the news—or drunken roommates banging out the blues.

He lived with three musicians, Pablo, Jon, and Geoff (he had just moved off campus and planned to stay off). He thought blues musicians would teach him something about form, at least through their vibrations, but they proved a ragtag bunch, given to long, wayward jams and hapless vocals (“I love my baby, it’s so hard to see her with you, Jim”). He sometimes escaped to the local café for relative quiet, only to be accosted along the way by homeless beggars or curbside preachers pressing us to pray, all of us, the whole sinful earth. He didn’t take the proselytizing personally; he saw himself as a mere sprat in their teeming school. Still, it broke his concentration once again. “You’ve got to move out and find a quieter place,” I told him. He knew, he knew. Then I offered to let him move in with me (I had an extra room; my roommate had moved out). To my surprise, he arrived with his boxes and bags the following week.

That gave our friendship a boost but also knocked me temporarily off course. With the money saved from rent, I figured I could splurge a little. We took the Metro North train about once a week to New York. At oyster bars, we slurped our cash away. The waiters took a liking to us; they knew our names, and we their shells and brews. After a couple dozen, we headed onward to our favorite pubs. We talked late into the night: I about old-time radio, and he about poems he was trying to write. I nagged him until he actually wrote them (the sonnet was the only one he never wrote). Somehow, we made it through the summer and later through college. We never dated—this was all platonic—but one autumn night in our senior year, we lay side by side on my bed. “Are we supposed to be together?” I asked. No answer came. The question hung like a pair of pants that have slipped to one end of a hanger.

Then, years went by, and we began to use our learnings at last. He, I read on the newly arisen Internet, had become the editor-in-chief of a renowned literary journal; I had gone into cable TV production and been promoted several times. My salary probably quadrupled his, but he had ten times the prestige. I only had to mention his name in certain circles, and eyes would pop out. “You actually know Adam Wilt?”

I met Scott, another producer, who became my beloved husband. Even with our hefty salaries, we thought domestically and lived frugally, dining on broccoli and rice in the kitchen, giving up all things gourmet (with slips here and there). We eschewed shop talk; our daily conversation had to do with the toilet handle that needed replacing, the cracked tile in the hallway, and the results of my latest pregnancy test. When our first child, Marcella, popped out into the world, we embraced home even more fervently, telecommuting whenever we could, until our twin boys arrived and I took a hiatus from work, the first hiatus of my life. From here, Scott started spending more time at the studio, where his duties had increased. For my part, I started indulging in daydreaming. My days had bursts and snatches of rush, but usually, in the late morning, when Kyle and Kurt were napping, I set the coffee brewing and sat by the window, gazing out at the magnolia tree and wondering what had become of Adam besides his career.

One day, I received a handwritten letter from him, already an oddity in our times. We have given up penmanship and postage for sheer speed, and I understand why. The miracle of tapping out a message and hearing back within minutes! The emphasis on content, for Christ’s sake, not curlicues! Granted, I was curious enough about the content of this letter, handwritten though it might be. “Dear Charlotte,” he wrote, “We live a sobered life.” (Who is this “we”? A royal “we”? Or has he found a partner? Or is he speaking of the two of us or of the human condition?) I read on. “We do our duty, then seek out repose. But if you think we’ve wisened, look at how the wars rage on, now with new technologies. How did September 11 happen? How could intelligence be so obtuse? Our folly frolics forth, now in reverse.” (Save that line! I told him in my mind. Oh, yes, and I figured out the “we,” it’s humanity you’re talking about, as usual.)

I started to pen a reply. My hand was clumsy now; I had to restart several times. I told him of my life as a mother of three: of diapers, walks to the nearby park, and the books I read them at night. I also told him (a little more shyly) about my trips to the gym, my sea salt soaks, my high-fiber vegetarian diet. Creaking and grey, we boast of bursting youth; it’s a badge of honor, at forty-two, to be told you look no older than twenty-five, though there must come a point when the sincerity of such a statement becomes strained.

One of the secret reasons for my hiatus was to regain my youthful figure. This had worked: I had shed twenty pounds, returned to calisthenics, and started rediscovering the alluring dresses from my college days. They say age is in the mind; in this, you’ll find an admixture of truth. I had passed forty but felt fresh and sharp. Burdens had lifted even as duties had accrued. Yes, I cared about my appearance, but once I hit a certain standard, I stopped worrying about it and stopped worrying in general. Life seemed plentiful and good. “Friends say we have a perk to us, a glow,” I wrote, using the plural to stress my married state. It wasn’t a lie, either; Scott might not have had Adam’s dreamy manner, but he was well-toned, fiery-eyed, brutally funny. Together, we had the verve of high school sweethearts.

I ended the letter, rummaged for an envelope, found it, came upon a stamp in the corner of my drawer, and put the completed act in my bag with the intent of mailing it on our way to the park. Plurals had taken over my life; I had concrete reasons, besides marriage, for the “we.” But sometimes, such as now, the “I” stuck out in my soul despite my wording. An unfamiliar melancholy rose up in my neck. I wondered why Adam had written. Did he miss me? Did he want to let me know how he was? He hadn’t even told me; his letter seemed more protest than disclosure. Railing on about calamity had always been his way of saying hi. Then it hit me that I might never see him again—not because I couldn’t, not because our paths had no chance of crossing, but simply because years go by, and eventually, something or other will take him or me out of the world. We think we still have time for everything, but young or old, we lurch toward the hearse.

I pulled the slightly crumpled envelope (scrunched beneath my wallet) out of my bag. I had forgotten to mail it; we were at the park, Kyle and Kurt playing in the sandbox, filling and emptying their buckets with glee. I tore it open, pulled out the letter, and unfolded it on my thigh. “P.S.,” I wrote in shaky print (cursive had always eluded me). “Remember that sonnet you never wrote? Here you go. Cheers.” I wrote it out.

When we were young, we fancied ourselves grey
and versed in suffering: the late-night news,
or drunken roommates banging out the blues,
or curbside preachers pressing us to pray.
At oyster bars, we slurped our cash away;
they knew our names, and we their shells and brews,
then, years went by, and we began to use
the kitchen, giving up all things gourmet.
But if you think we’ve wisened, look at how
our folly frolics forth, now in reverse:
creaking and grey, we boast of bursting youth.
In this, you’ll find an admixture of truth—
friends say we have a perk to us, a glow—
but young or old, we lurch toward the hearse.

Then I realized I couldn’t mail it. It would enable and confine him in bad ways. My therapist and I had been discussing how, if you do too much for others, you take away their agency. The sonnet was Adam’s, not mine; I hadn’t even known until now that I could write one. It wasn’t half bad: silly at moments (“lurch toward the hearse”?), but definitely a sonnet. Adam should have written it; given that he hadn’t, I had to let it go.

Or so I thought for years. Looking back now, I see that I had twisted a basic wisdom. Yes, one should avoid doing unto others what they need to do unto themselves, but that wasn’t an issue here. The homework assignment had long faded; sending Adam a sonnet wouldn’t have taken away an iota of his agency, which now towered far above remedial credits. Besides, it would have been nice to answer him; we might have stayed in touch here and there. Oh, the babble we come up with, the excuses we concoct just to avoid those almost-friends, the people at the edges of our minds.

About the Author

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities and the author of two books of nonfiction, Republic of Noise (2012) and Mind over Memes (2018), as well as numerous poems, stories, essays, and translations. Her translations of Tomas Venclova’s poems appear in his collections Winter Dialogue (1997), The Junction (2008), and a forthcoming volume; her translation of Gyula Jenei’s collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory) was published in 2022 by Deep Vellum. She has been living and teaching in Hungary since 2017.