Iwill never read another novel about a suburban marriage,” a man was saying to me. We were in a bookstore. I was assuming the man was saying this to me because I’d written several novels about suburban marriages, and in fact was in that bookstore, which also happened to be in the suburbs, because in a few minutes I was supposed to give a reading from my latest novel about suburban marriages. We were both looking at a poster on an easel, advertising my reading. On it was the cover of my book, which was titled Love and Subdivisions. The cover was a photo of a series of identical white houses with black shutters, and in front of the houses stood a series of couples, their faces artfully blurred, all of them holding hands, husband, wife, husband, wife, off the cover and on into eternity, I guess. The man made a scoffing noise at the poster, and when he did that I felt like he was attacking me. Because not only had I written the book, but the cover was in fact a photo of me and my wife and our friends in front of our houses. That was us on the outside of the book, even though the stories of the people inside the book were not, in absolutely every case, our stories, exactly. “Well, why are you here,” I said, “if you hate these novels so much?” “Oh, I’m not here for the reading,” he said, and waved dismissively at the section of the bookstore where I was to be reading. There were twenty or so folding chairs set up in front of the podium. The reading was to start in five minutes, but only three people were sitting, waiting for it. Two of them were reading books, to kill time, but even from where I was standing I could tell that they weren’t my books. That felt like an attack, too. “I’m here to buy a book.” “What kind?” “Any kind, as long as it takes me someplace far away. I like to be transported.” “But where?” He thought about it. “The Middle Ages,” he said. And then suddenly we were in a muddy field. There was smoke everywhere, but through the smoke I could see men wearing helmets, furs, thick leather armor. Some of the men were on the ground and some were standing. The men on the ground were headless; the men standing were carrying a fancy kind of axe. A battle axe, I guessed, although I also guessed that that was just a generic term for any axe used in battle, and that there was a more specific name for this specific axe. If I’d written novels set in the Middle Ages, then maybe I’d have known the proper name for it. But I didn’t. Likewise, the men with heads were shouting at each other in a language I didn’t know. It wasn’t English, and I’d taken Spanish in high school and I was pretty sure it wasn’t that, either. But
what was it? French? Breton? Was Breton even a language? Or was it just a place? Maybe they were yelling at each other in Portuguese. But did Portugal even have the Middle Ages? I didn’t know, and that I didn’t know such a basic fact as whether Portugal had the Middle Ages felt like an accusation, too. All these accusations were starting to make me feel like there was something seriously wrong with me, that I was limited, stunted, and that I would never get more expansive, would never grow. In fact, my wife had said similar things to me— that I was stunted, that I would never grow, that I would never grow enough to write a novel that didn’t have barely disguised versions of me and her and our friends and our stories in it—and she had said these things to me right before she left me, but right after she posed for the photo of her, and me, and our friends, that would end up as the cover of my latest book about suburban marriages. Suddenly I very much wanted to kill myself. On the ground in front of me, next to the body of one of the headless men, was a battle axe, or whatever it’s called. I bent over, picked it up, with the full intention to use it on myself. This is the end, I thought, and turned to the man who’d been transported with me from the bookstore, because everyone knows that nothing is truly the end unless you have someone witness it. The man was smiling hugely. “You see what I’m talking about?” he said to me, in English, and then yelled something at the standing men in their own language, and they yelled back and cheerfully raised their battle axes over their heads in celebration of their kinship with the man, and then I changed my mind and used the axe to cut off the man’s head. Immediately I was transported back to the bookstore, right behind the podium. There were now five people in the audience, whereas before there were only three. The two newcomers were my wife and our ten-year-old son. Our son noticed the weapon I was holding and said, “Hey, Dad, where’d you get that cool battle axe?” So maybe that was the proper name of the thing! Meanwhile, my wife smiled at me. It wasn’t a real smile, more of an “I think I’ve missed you but I’m not sure so no promises let’s just take it slow” kind of smile. Still, I felt a little better about us, and myself, and my book, although I decided to hold onto the battle axe, just in case.