The Page 99 Test: Laurie Stone & My Life as an Animal
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” ―Ford Madox Ford
Damn you, Ford Madox Ford. I wanted to be done with a friend I had turned into a character in My Life as an Animal. Then I read page ninety-nine, and there she was in an armchair, talking about love and work, as if no time had passed.
She was older than me, more accomplished, a little famous. We were close half a lifetime ago. Really, half a lifetime ago in the women’s movement. She was significant at a turning point, or maybe all the times you love someone and lose them are turning points. When I knew her, I was with a man named Gardner, who became ill with bone marrow cancer. Near the end, I was taking a break from the hospital and sitting in a coffee shop with my friend. I was flattered she had come and hanging on her words as if they were directions to a new life. I liked to watch her mouth hesitate and curl as the words formed. I did not know Gardner was taking his last breaths.
I resurrected the friendship in a story called “Leaving Gardner” that cuts between his illness and my friend. I call her Evelyn. The events on page ninety-nine take place twenty years after Gardner’s death, when the narrator, having arranged a reunion at Evelyn’s apartment, feels their old camaraderie spark to life. Evelyn speaks about her loneliness, and the narrator feels tenderness and admiration. It is as if everything is permissible if it is from the heart. The narrator recalls her own adjustment to aloneness, remembering the movie Henry and June and its depiction of an affair between Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. In the last scene, Nin weeps, ostensibly about the loss of love, but the narrator remembers thinking—and it came like a revelation about herself—No, you are crying because Henry is a better writer than you, and he is a better writer because he lives without a safety net.
Every memory rewrites the present might be the motto of My Life as an Animal. The stories are autobiographical, but I am not interested in things because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary, or ordinarily strange. Often the book’s narrator drifts toward love that cannot be destroyed because it cannot be fulfilled. She thinks helplessness is funny. At least in retrospect. What links the stories most consistently is the narrator’s direct address to the reader and the changes in her understandings between now and another time.
Evelyn sketches out a book she wants to write about a mutual friend of theirs. The narrator says, “Do it.” Evelyn says, “Why?” The narrator says, “We need books about friendship,” and the narrator thinks about the early days of the women’s movement when everyone would say, “Friends are family.” The narrator does not believe this anymore. She thinks, “Friendship is more delicate. You have to be careful with friends.” She wonders if her connection with Evelyn can continue and at the same time feels the distance they have moved. They no longer know each other’s stories.
I often think about the Lydia Davis story “Happy Memories,” in which the narrator considers what makes a happy memory. She says it requires feeling warmth toward a person who will retain you happily in their thoughts. And it requires that nothing happen subsequently to reverse the good will.
In My Life as an Animal, the narrator leaves Evelyn’s apartment with a feeling of hope. In reality, the friendship foundered again like an animal without legs. I let it go, and then I read page ninety-nine and had a dream.
A performer arrives in the loft where I am staying and sees I have forgotten our plan. I have promised to read with her band, and the audience is restless. Suddenly Evelyn is there, looking younger than in the past, with a sweep of charcoal hair rising up like smoke. I follow her outside, and all the time I am away worry I will not get back. I come to a house where the floor is flooded. I hear a crash and see bodies strewn along a road. It is dark now, and even if I can find a taxi, I will never get back in time. Evelyn smiles, content for us to spend our lives on a futile search for something mysterious. She is across from me on a bed and says, “We should have dinner.” I say, “Did you say you want to be friends?” She says, “Yes.” She leans toward me and places her lips on mine, less a kiss than an intake of breath that feels cold, like air released when a boulder is moved. She clears her throat and kisses me again, twice. These kisses are sexual. And when I wake up I am happy because I will never know myself.
Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal (TriQuarterly Books, 2016), the novel Starting with Serge (Doubleday), and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She is at work on the fiction collection The Love of Strangers. Her website is: lstonehere.wordpress.com.