By LORI OSTLUND
“Tell me what you want, Aaron,” Walter had periodically insisted, the words no longer an invitation but a way of chiding Aaron, suggesting that he wanted too much—or worse, that he had no idea what he wanted. In the beginning of their lives together, when they were two discrete people, Walter’s motives felt easy to read.
: Tell me who you are, he seemed to be saying. Tell me what you want from this life. Only later had Aaron understood that his real motive in asking was to discover how he might serve as benefactor to Aaron’s wishes and ambitions and, in doing so, bind Aaron to him.
Walter had first posed the question on a Sunday afternoon twenty years earlier, as they drove toward Moorhead, Minnesota, where Walter was a language professor—French and Spanish, Italian in a pinch—at the university. Though it was hard even to imagine such a time now, they were strangers then, two men (one just barely) occupying the intimacy of a car. Aaron had spent the first five years of his life in Moorhead. It was there that his father had died, his death causing something to shift in Aaron’s mother so that soon after, the two of them had moved to Mortonville. Aaron still had memories of the house his family had lived in and the street where his father died, enough to make his arrival with Walter a homecoming, even though he thought of what he was doing that day as running away. It was all a matter of perspective: whether one was focused on leaving or arriving, on the past or the future.
In the midst of pondering this, he heard Walter say, “Tell me, Aaron. What is it that you want?”
“I want a different brain,” he had answered.
He was eighteen and bookish, this latter the adjective that he would employ as an adult—euphemistically—to indicate that he had not yet had sex. He did not mean that he actually wanted a different brain but rather that he wanted to fill the one he had with knowledge and experiences of which he could not yet conceive but was sure existed. Walter had laughed, not unkindly, but the laughter had upset Aaron, a feeling that was underscored by the music playing on Walter’s cassette deck. It was classical music, which Aaron had never known anyone to listen to, not like this: in the car, for pleasure. People in Mortonville listened to country music and rock, hymns and patriotic songs, though they did not discount such things as classical music and poetry. Most of them were proud that their children could recite nine poems by the end of sixth grade, a poem a month. They saw these poems as proof that their children were getting educated, for they were practical people who did not expect education to be practical, did not expect it to make their children better farmers or housewives. If it did, it was probably not education.
When Aaron was nine, Mrs. Carlsrud had assigned each student a classical composer, about whom the child was expected to deliver an oral report. He was assigned Sibelius, who was a Finn, a Swedish Finn, a distinction of importance in Mortonville, where most people were either Scandinavian or German. The Scandinavian block was dominated by the Norwegians and Swedes, who were seen as separate groups, except when discussed beside the Finns; the Finns were technically Scandinavian, but they were different. All of them, every single Finn in Mortonville, lived east of town, a self-imposed segregation. They even had their own church, which sat atop a hill amid their farms.
The first day of the presentations, Ellen Arndt stood at the front of the classroom holding a small stack of recipe cards, from which she read two parallel pieces of information: “Tchaikovsky was a Russian and a homosexual.” Three children giggled, and Sharon Engstrom raised her hand and said, “What’s a Russian?” When Mrs. Carlsrud replied that a Russian was “someone from Russia, a communist,” Sharon Engstrom said, “Then what’s a homosexual?” shifting her focus to the second noun, which included the word sex after all, and the same three children laughed.
“That is not relevant,” said Mrs. Carlsrud, her reply suggesting to Aaron that homosexuals were worth investigating. He planned to ask his mother about the word after school, but when he arrived at the café, their café, she was preparing the supper special, meatballs, and because she did not like to be asked questions when she was busy, he waited until the two of them were closing up that night.
“What does homosexual mean?” he asked as he filled the saltshakers.
“What makes you ask?” said his mother. She was running her hands under the bottoms of the tables, looking for improperly disposed-of gum.
“Today, Ellen Arndt said that Tchaikovsky was a Russian and a homosexual, and Mrs. Carlsrud said that Russians live in Russia but homosexuals aren’t relevant.”
“Well,” his mother said. “It means he likes men.”
“Why isn’t it relevant?” he said.
“That’s just something Mrs. Carlsrud said because she didn’t want to talk about it,” said his mother. Then, she turned off the lights in the dining room and went upstairs, which was what she did when she didn’t want to talk about something.
The first time Aaron and Walter met was on a Saturday morning when Walter came into the café for breakfast. He was alone, for his weekend fishing trips to Mortonville were solitary affairs. Aaron was fifteen. He later learned that Walter was thirty, twice his age, though Aaron, like most teenagers, had no sense of what thirty looked like. Walter stood by the door, waiting to be seated, which was not the custom at the cafe, so Aaron finally approached him and asked whether he needed directions.
Years later, as he walked through the Castro, alone, Aaron would be struck by how many gay male couples looked alike, the narcissistic component of love driven home in stark visual terms, but he and Walter were opposites. Aaron’s hair was blond and fine, and already, at fifteen, he wore it in a severe right part, while Walter’s hair that day was unevenly shorn, with dark, curly patches sprouting out along his neck and across the top. When Aaron next encountered him, his hair would be long and frizzy, though just as inexpertly cut. Over the years, Walter would come home with one bad haircut after another, the bad part the only constant, but when Aaron asked why he didn’t try a different salon, Walter would reply with a shrug, “Nobody around here knows how to cut Jew hair anyway.”
Walter was short, just five-eight, his weight concentrated in his lower torso and thighs, and as Aaron stood before him for the first time that morning in the café, Walter had to tilt his head slightly back to look up at Aaron. “Directions, no,” Walter said. “What I need is a hearty breakfast.”
Aaron paid close attention to Walter that morning. He noted that Walter was left-handed, though he would later learn that he was left-handed only for eating. Walter cut his food with his right hand, holding his fork in the left, but did not take what he called “the unnecessary step” of switching the fork to his right when he transported each bite to his mouth. His parents, who had both been refugees from Nazi Germany, had taught him to eat this way, like a European. He told Aaron that during the war, American spies—men who spoke perfect German—had been caught because of this simple slip, the shifting of the fork from left hand to right. Later, under Walter’s tutelage, Aaron would become a left-handed eater also. Even as he became his own person over the years, he would find the Pygmalion aspect of their relationship—habits such as these, established early on—the hardest to shed.
Walter carried a book, which he sat reading. Aaron had never seen anyone read while eating, not in public. Of course, the regulars sometimes glanced at the newspaper, making comments about crop prices or sports, but Walter read as if nothing but the book existed. Aaron often wished that he could bring a book to the table, especially as the meals that he and his mother shared became increasingly silent, but his mother forbade it. When he refilled Walter’s coffee cup, Aaron looked down at his book and was shocked to see that it was not in English. Sensing his interest, Walter held the book up. “Camus. Have you read him yet?” Aaron shook his head, and Walter said, “Well, Camus is a must, but I guess I’ve officially lost my adolescent enthrallment with existentialism. I’m finding it quite tedious this time around.” He sighed the way other men sighed about the weather or a hard-to-find tractor part. The adult Aaron would have laughed at Walter’s transparent need to prove himself to a fifteen-year-old boy, but the Aaron he was then felt the world shifting, accommodating the fact that it was much vaster than he had ever imagined, that it included people who read books in other languages and spoke of ideas so foreign to him that they, too, seemed another language.
For men perhaps more than for women, there is something aphrodisiacal about finding oneself on the greater-than side of an intellectual disparity, and years later, Aaron would learn that Walter had felt something during that first encounter, a sexual stirring that they never fully discussed because Walter was not comfortable talking about desire. Aaron did know that Walter had been introduced to sex by a man who followed him back to the dressing room while he shopped for school clothes with his mother in a department store in New York. He was fourteen. He had no bad feelings toward the man, but he told Aaron that the experience had shaped him nonetheless, had taught him to associate sexual gratification with furtiveness and haste and a lack of reciprocity. On those rare occasions when Walter did discuss sex, he always brought to it this same textbook-like dryness.
Aaron had felt desire that day, a desire that was in no way sexual. In fact, it had felt to him more potent than anything sexual could be, for sexual desire was, by nature, transient, a flame that grew large and went out. Admittedly, he knew very little of sexual desire, recognized it largely in terms of what he did not want but was led to believe that he should—girls. True sexual desire, he thought, was like an undershirt worn close to the skin and covered by layers of shirts and sweaters and coats.
Three years after that first meeting, when Walter brought Aaron home with him to Moorhead and introduced him to his circle of closeted friends, one of them, Jonas, commented coyly, “Oh my, look what Walter caught,” and the others laughed as if they had known all along that Walter’s weekend getaways were not really about fishing. Within the group it was common knowledge that Jonas was in love with Walter and that his love was not reciprocated, for various reasons, among them that Walter did not date married men, and Jonas was married, a fact that the other men snickered at behind his back. They could not imagine Jonas, with his pear-shaped body and hands as white and soft as sifted flour, atop a woman. Walter did not snicker. He was patient with Jonas, partly because Walter was a kind man but largely because he pitied Jonas, pitied him for having both a woman’s body and a wife. Pity is a hard thing to bear, for it’s never about love; pity is the opposite of love, one of its opposites, since love has many. Still, Jonas bore it.
Aaron later understood that the men’s campiness was a pose, a function of the fact that they lived their lives hidden and needed to make the most of these secret moments together, but at the time he had not known what to think of any of them—not even Walter, who was solicitous of his needs yet laughed along with Jonas’s joke, allowing the implication that he and Aaron were sexually involved to stand as truth. In fact, during their first four years together, he and Walter did not have sex, not with each other. Aaron was in college and engaged occasionally in sexual relations—as Walter termed it, taking all the passion and dirt right out of it—with other young men, his first encounter with a boy from his British literature class. He had been drawn to the familiar look of the boy, whose name was Ken. They had groped and wrestled on Ken’s dormitory bed one afternoon as they studied for their midterm, both of them losing their virginity to the other, but after he left Ken’s room, still breathless, he knew that familiarity was not what he wanted from life. He did not want to engage in furtive sex with a boy resembling those with whom he had grown up, a sturdy blonde whose hands gripped him as they once had a cow’s teat, a boy whose pillows smelled faintly of hay and gum. Still, it had pleased (and bewildered) him to know that a boy like that—like those who had shoved him around in the locker room while talking loudly about what their girlfriends did to their penises—desired him.
After Ken, there had been others, none of whom Aaron brought to Walter’s house. He felt it would be wrong to do so, even though Walter treated him in the same avuncular manner he treated everyone else, without innuendo or any hint of desire. It was Walter’s sister Winnie who finally set him straight. “Don’t you see how much he loves you?” she had asked. Aaron said that he did not. “Fine,” she said at last. “He told me that he’s in love with you. Okay? But you must never, ever tell Walter that I told you.”
It turned out Winnie was lying, not about the nature of Walter’s feelings but about his having confessed them to her, though Aaron did not learn of her dishonesty until after he had seduced Walter the evening of his college graduation party, an event that left him inebriated and nostalgic and deeply grateful to Walter, who had paid his tuition and all of his living expenses, who had made it possible for him to occupy a different brain.
Now, all these years later, as he found himself leaving Walter, he began here, with the necessary step of deconstructing love. At first, his mind was flooded with memories, an indiscriminate flooding that was no help at all, but then, slowly, like a shopkeeper taking inventory, he went through each memory separately, taking stock. The nature of love, he concluded yet again, was most often this: either a person was not in it enough to care, or was in it too deeply to make anything but mistakes.
Sad Café Love, he and Winnie had called this kind of lopsided devotion, after the Carson McCullers novel. Most people, they agreed, could either love or be loved, for these two were like rubbing your stomach and patting your head—nearly impossible to accomplish simultaneously. Winnie did not have a Sad Café marriage. She was deeply in love with Thomas, her husband, and he with her. They were the most equally in love couple that Aaron knew, the sort that took turns with everything: not just with household chores and finances but even with bouts of self-doubt and sadness. Never did they seem to regard each other as competition, as so many couples begin to. When one of them made a comment at a dinner party, the other found a way to make it sound even wittier or more insightful. As a result, they were in high demand at social gatherings, but they rarely accepted invitations because they enjoyed each other’s company best.
“Every time we go to a dinner party lately,” Winnie had told Aaron not long ago, “there’s always some couple that insists on bringing everyone else into their unhappiness. When Thomas and I fight, I don’t want anyone to hear because I’m usually just saying stuff out loud to see what I think about it, but having witnesses changes everything.”
“Yes,” Aaron had said, “but when people are really unhappy, they feel like they need witnesses, some kind of permanent record.”
He told her about a fiftieth-birthday party that he and Walter had attended for one of Walter’s colleagues, a woman named Nina who taught German. Nina’s husband, Peter, had planned the event, an elaborate affair that he referred to throughout the evening as his labor of love, but as he became drunker, he began to tell stories about Nina, secrets that he presented as charming little anecdotes: she had once locked their baby daughter in the bedroom with a mouse for two hours while she waited for him to get home to kill it; during a humid summer in Thailand, a mushroom had sprouted in her navel. After each story, Peter held his glass in the air while Nina sat with a tight smile on her face, inviting the guests to laugh along with her husband, who was too drunk to notice that nobody did.
“It was completely Virginia Woolf-ish,” Aaron told Winnie, referring to the Albee play and not the author herself.
“They probably had a very passionate relationship in the beginning,” Winnie said. “When couples start hating each other, everything goes but the passion. It just gets rechanneled.”
Aaron met Winnie when he was nineteen, the summer after his first year of college. One day Walter announced that his sister would be coming for the weekend. He had never mentioned a sibling.
“Are you close?” Aaron asked.
“We’re not un-close. There’s no underlying animosity, if that’s what you mean. We’re typical of many adult siblings, I suspect. Being close, as you put it, requires a certain commitment from both parties, and perhaps we lack the commitment.”
It turned out that Winnie was visiting because she and Thomas were moving to Minneapolis, where Thomas had taken a job as vice principal at a private school. When Aaron asked her whether they had chosen Minnesota to be closer to Walter, she laughed and said, “The sort of relationship we have doesn’t require proximity.”
“Walter didn’t even tell me he had a sister,” Aaron confessed.
“That sounds like Walter,” Winnie said, sounding not at all upset.
After she left, Walter noted how well Aaron and Winnie had gotten along, offering this assessment without jealousy. It was the same way he sounded when Aaron asked to borrow a scarf or a bicycle helmet. “Take it,” Walter would say. “I’m not using it. Someone should.”
Now, Aaron was giving Walter his sister back. Walter had not indicated that he wanted his sister back or even that he felt she had been taken, but Aaron preferred to think of his motives in this way because he did not know how to tell Winnie he was leaving. She would want to know why. She would want to know everything. He had instead recorded his reasons in a notebook, cataloging them as though he had in mind a tipping point—25 or 41 or 100—the number of grievances that justified leaving.
Grievance #1: Whenever Walter and I are sitting in a room together and he gets up to leave, he turns off the light on his way out. He claims that it is a gesture born of habit, something ingrained in him by his parents, but I cannot help but feel that his focus moves with him so that when he leaves a room, everything in it, including me, ceases to exist. He told me once, not unkindly, that this bothers me because I have “abandonment issues.” I don’t particularly care for therapy lingo, yet it struck me as a convincing argument. Still, I cannot help but wonder why Walter does not then take more care to avoid triggering my “issues,” why he continues turning off lights as he goes blithely along to his study or the kitchen, leaving me there in the dark.
Grievance #14: Walter insists on using the French pronunciation of all Anglicized French words, an affectation that I must admit has become a source of embarrassment for me, unexpressed of course, for I understand that I am the one who has changed. In other words: once, at the very beginning of our relationship—before sex entered the equation, before I became the person I now am—we went grocery shopping together. There, I watched Walter ask one stock boy after another where he might find the “my-o-nez,” watched and felt proud of his perfect pronunciation, proud of the fact that it never brought us one step closer to what we sought, a jar of bland, white mayonnaise.
Grievance #86: Last night we got together with three of Walter’s friends from college. The Credentialists, I call them. Walter doesn’t approve of the name, but I consider it apt. The first time we met, several years ago now, one of them, Harold, immediately asked where I had attended college.
“I went to a state school in Minnesota, the one where Walter used to teach.”
They had gone to Harvard. They said it apologetically—“at Harvard.”
At dinner, they proclaimed the food “fabulous,” and one of them said, “Remember how awful the food was in the cafeteria?” and another, Harold again, said, “It was dreadful, but that’s the thing. Anyone else can say their college food was terrible, and nobody thinks they’re talking about anything more than food, but if I say to a group of people—not you guys, of course, because we’re all in the same boat—that the food was awful at Harvard, well, everyone just assumes that I’m not talking about the food at all. It’s become a bit of problem.”
“That does not sound like a problem,” I said.
There were 149 grievances in the notebook at this point, but the main reason that he was leaving, which he never recorded, was that he no longer loved Walter. He did not know how to consider this alongside the sheer longevity of their relationship, the fact that he had been with Walter more than half his life. The day he stood in Walter’s office and told him that he was leaving, after Walter said, “But I saved you” and began to cry, Aaron went into his own office and took out the notebook. Though it seemed cruel to add to it in the home they had created together, he took up his pen and composed Grievance #149: He saved me knowing that there is no stronger way to bind another human being to you than by saving him. This is why I must leave.
Most of his grievance cataloging had been done at Milton’s, a diner on Central Avenue, where he had secretly been eating lunch every Friday for the nine years they lived in Albuquerque. He considered himself a regular, though he suspected that nobody else did. The true regulars fell into three categories: truckers, prostitutes, and the old men who lived in the Route 66 motor lodges scattered along this stretch of Central. The truckers came and went, as did the prostitutes, though their comings and goings were dictated not by the road but by the law and their own bad luck. They sat in groups of three or four, talking without lowering their voices, even when they discussed the vicissitudes of business or the policemen who trolled for “freebies,” which the women expeditiously dispensed in the front seats of squad cars. They did not rage against these circumstances but instead spoke as if bad luck were a family member they could not envision their lives without.
It was the old men who intrigued him most. He knew nothing of their lives and had always been too intimidated to strike up a conversation, but he thought of them, collectively, as a cautionary tale. Do not become comfortable with loneliness, he told himself as he listened to them converse awkwardly while vying for the waitresses’ attention. One of the men, whom he nicknamed Elmer, was obsessed with terrorism, specifically with the possibility that his flophouse motel might be the next object of an attack. This was right after 9/11, when terrorism was on everyone’s mind, but the certainty with which Elmer asserted his theory left Aaron disheartened. Elmer held forth from the smoking end of the counter, waving a cigarette in the air to help his point along. Aaron had never seen him without one, and as he watched Elmer light each new cigarette from the butt of the last, listened to him wheeze and hack phlegm into his napkin, he wanted to scream from his booth that it was clear what would kill Elmer and it had nothing to do with terrorists.
One Friday Aaron arrived feeling particularly fed up with people’s irrationality, for he had just sat through a faculty meeting. To add to his displeasure, the booths were full, so he was forced to take a stool at the counter, to the right of the smoking Elmer, who was putting forth his theory yet again for the bored cook.
“Excuse me,” Aaron said loudly, turning to Elmer, who rotated slowly toward him. This close, Aaron could see that Elmer’s eyes were rheumy, their greenness turned to milk, and he realized then that Elmer was just a very old man engaged in a last-ditch effort to bring meaning to his life. He gestured at the pepper shaker. “Pass the pepper?” he said, as though pepper were what he had wanted all along.
The next week, Elmer was not present. From his booth, Aaron heard one of the waitresses say to a regular, “Did you hear? The terrorists finally got old Dick.” She inclined her head toward Elmer’s usual spot. Aaron finished his breakfast burrito and set a ten-dollar bill on the table, anchoring it with his coffee mug. When he got out to his car, he put his head down on the steering wheel and sobbed. He had not known the old man, had not even bothered to learn that his name was Dick, so he was not sure where the grief came from, except that he pictured the old man alone in his motel room, smoking and peering into the parking lot, and he regretted that he had not argued with him.
Aaron had not thought of Elmer, Dick, in a couple of years, but the Friday before he left Walter, as he sat at Milton’s for the last time, he looked around at the old men and what came to mind was Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He was sure Thoreau had meant, literally, men, for Aaron knew that men lived far lonelier lives than women—with the exception, perhaps, of his mother, though he considered the possibility that she was no longer lonely, that she had left Mortonville (and him) all those years ago to escape loneliness. He had not read Thoreau in years, not since college. He was not interested in reading about nature, not because he disliked nature but because he disliked the artistic tendency to interpret nature, to put nature into words. He felt that nature spoke sufficiently for itself. He did not care to discuss it or to listen to others discuss it, nor to read about it in prose or poetic form or to see it depicted in art, for nature did not puzzle him: the seasons changed in the same order year after year, animals reproduced, birds assembled nests, flowers bloomed. People, on the other hand, did perplex him, and because the mind is often like that, gravitating toward mystery and challenge, Aaron preferred people.
Here was the thing, the irony perhaps: he had been coming to Milton’s these nine years in order to be alone. No one knew of his Friday ritual, especially not Walter, for how could he have explained to Walter that surrounded by these men, these lives-of-quiet-desperation men, he had acknowledged his own abiding loneliness. He ate a forkful of beans and looked around the diner, wondering whether anyone there would notice his absence. He hoped so.
Lori Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. It was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, was a Lambda finalist, and was named a Notable Book by The Short Story Prize. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other places. In 2009, she received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in San Francisco.
Listen to Lori Ostlund and Masha Hamilton read and discuss “Leaving Walter” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.