Last Friday night in a pub in Bernal Heights at eight o’clock, I played Liar’s Dice with Stephen, Isaac, Peter, Ben, and Joshua.
At one point in the night, Stephen cried from laughing so hard. He had his hands over his eyes, and his friends started laughing, too. They said, Look! Look at him! He’s crying! They couldn’t believe it.
I had this image of Stephen playing cards as a boy with his friends in Chicago. Now here he was, years later, playing dice with his friends in San Francisco. I wonder if Stephen will ever lose his boyishness. I wonder if that’s part of his charm.
When I lived in the Bay Area, Steve wrote Poker Reports and I would read them because I thought The Score was something sacred so I read all of his writing. Just like I thought Play It As It Lays was something sacred so I read all of Didion. Or a lot of Didion. As much as I could.
In the interview, Didion says, “When I was starting to write—in the late fifties, early sixties—there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O’Connor, of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I’m not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved—I suppose—deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.”
I’ve been meaning to reread Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer but instead, on sleepless nights, I just reread passages, like this one:
“I recall once telling Charlotte about a village on the Orinoco where female children were ritually cut on the inner thigh by their sexual partners, the point being to scar the female with the male’s totem. Charlotte saw nothing extraordinary in this. ‘I mean that’s pretty much what happens everywhere, isn’t it,’ she said. ‘Somebody cuts you? Where it doesn’t show?’”
My two favorite Poker Reports:
1. November 16, 2007, “Truth at a Price You Can Afford Since 2001”
2. January 19, 2007, “Teaching Your Children to Read Since 2001”
When I read Joan Didion and Stephen Elliott, I was twenty-three and having a nervous breakdown. I lived in the Bay Area and then decided to move to Los Angeles to completely lose it. I didn’t keep in touch with anyone from the Bay.
As we played Liar’s Dice, someone was talking about trying to save people.
I said, very low, to no one in particular, Can you ever really save anyone?
Isaac said, Yes Zoe. You can.
I looked at him, surprised. I said, You weren’t supposed to hear me.
He said, Well, I did, and it’s called friendship.
I laughed and said nothing.
When I was twenty-three, I met Isaac and we became friends and would hang out in the Mission. Maybe that’s why he feels comfortable shouting at me from across a table to tell me I am completely wrong in front of people I’ve just met.
I don’t know how it happened but Isaac makes me feel like I am cold-hearted. Isaac will tell me friendship can save people, and I think, How cute.
Then I think, Man. I’m a jerk.
Ask me about love and I might tell you about Charlotte Douglas. I might say love is when somebody cuts you. Where it doesn’t show. And you’ll say, Literally or figuratively? I’ll shrug and say nothing.
At ten o’clock that Friday morning, I drank black tea and ate scones with a dominatrix in her kitchen. I said, I think I know why I like being tied up so much.
I paused and she said, Yes?
Because I’m always running, I said. When I really want to stay.
Then the doorbell rang, then the conversation was over.
That Friday, long after I left the pub, I remembered that years ago, late one night in the Mission District, Isaac and I had been hanging out and our mutual friend got in an argument with a woman.
We were standing on Valencia Street and the argument escalated. The woman looked at our friend and then at Isaac and then at me. She did not take her eyes off me and then came at me.
I stood still, eyes wide open. I didn’t quite understand that she was coming to sock me in the face. I did not understand that these things happen, strangers punch strangers.
Seconds before she reached me, Isaac stepped in front of me. I had been so focused on her that he seemed to come out of nowhere.
So there you are. Friendship can save people. My friendship with Isaac saved me from getting socked in the face.
Something else: Peter Orner is a terrible gambler. There. I said it. (But maybe you shouldn’t believe me. I only played Liar’s Dice with him once.) He is also a terrific writer. But you already knew that from The Lonely Voice.
Remember this passage from The Second Coming of Mivala Shikongo:
“‘I remember running through an airport once. I was about to miss a plane. There was a woman in front of me, young, she had a kid with her. Maybe he was five. She was late for the same plane and was trying to run with the kid, but it wasn’t working. I came up behind them and took the kid’s other hand, and we held him up in the air as we ran. The kid was loving it, him flying and he hasn’t even gotten on the plane yet. The whole time we didn’t say a word.’”
Actually, on second thought, ask me about love and I will tell you stories about the kindness and generosity of strangers.