West Village/June 2008
When: In 1987, when I first came to New York in hopes of becoming writer (but in fact working many hours as a temp), I took a workshop with Phillip Schultz, who was then teaching out of his West Village living room. During the course of that class, I wrote a story called “Safari” that for some reason I never brought in — it might have been too long. But I did end up reading it to Phil over dinner, or coffee, in a West Village restaurant, around 1988. The story was about a teenage girl whose family is part of a larger group on safari in Africa — something I’d done with my own family in 1980, when I was seventeen. I don’t remember much about that early “Safari,” except that it was meandering and unfinished, and included a blank-faced actor whom the narrator speculates “assumed expressions only when paid to.” Some years later I stumbled on an old draft and was struck by that phrase about the actor — irked that I hadn’t found some use for it since.
Then, in 2008, twenty years after the original “Safari,” I wrote “Ask Me if I Care,” in which Lou tells his “girls” about his trip to Africa. Though I knew Lou was a minor character in the scheme of GOON SQUAD, I couldn’t resist following him onto that safari.
Music: Nada Surf’s LET GO.
History: There was an actor on the safari my family went on, too. His name was Tim, and he had a Walkman — the first I’d ever seen. It was a huge novelty on the trip, everyone wanting a turn to listen through the orange foam headphones. That was our last trip together as a family; my mother and stepfather separated within the year, then divorced. We took lots of pictures of Africa, but were disappointed when we got the film developed back at home: the animals looked the size of ants.
“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?”
Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair (as they draw in the dust with little sticks), is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely.
“Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink — ”
“Impossible,” their father interjects, with a wink at the bird-watching ladies to his left. Both women wear binoculars even in the dark, as if hoping to spot birds in the firelit tree overhead.
“Remember, Charlie? How the beach was still warm, and that crazy wind was blowing?”
But Charlie is focused on her father’s legs, which have intertwined behind her with those of his girlfriend, Mindy. Soon they will bid the group good night and retreat to their tent, where they’ll make love on one of the narrow rickety cots inside it, or possibly on the ground. From the adjacent tent she and Rolph share, Charlie can hear them — not sounds, exactly, but movement. Rolph is too young to notice.
Charlie throws back her head, startling her father. Lou is in his late thirties, square-jawed surfer’s face gone a little draggy under the eyes.
“You were married to Mom on that trip,” she informs him, her voice distorted by the arching of her neck, which is encircled by a puka-shell choker.
“Yes, Charlie,” Lou says. “I’m aware of that.”