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Frequently Asked Questions

by Margaret Gray

July 30, 1969

Q. What in God's name is going on?

A. You've just been born. You don't have many responsibilities. Those wild-eyed figures are your parents, whom you'll be inclined to blame. I'm your older self, unimaginably older, here to tell you: They didn't invent biology. Please limit your future postings to the questions you ask most commonly. Note: There is no God.

October 8, 1971

Q. I'm attached to my parents. But they seem to prefer this new, smaller person. Who is he? Should I try to do something about him?

A. You'll try, whether I tell you to or not. Three years from now, you'll shut your bedroom door to keep him out. He'll stand outside, sobbing and crayoning the lower panels blue. He doesn't think to turn the knob--he believes your rejection of him transcends its tangible symbols. Open the door! Let him hold every animal in your collection, which you've only acquired to show him up, and which he only wants because they're yours. You don't know what it'll be like after that, watching him fall in love with somebody else.

July 4, 1976

Q. Dad drank a lot of that yellow stuff they drink before they begin shouting. Why?

A. It's pretty good stuff. Eventually you'll drink it, too, to find out what's so good about it. You won't, and then you will. You'll muse on genetic inheritance and ghosts as you crash through cupboards late at night for another bottle or wave a smelly sponge at the Scotch on the floor. In that lucid state, your heart will go out to him.

September 18, 1984

Q. People at school don't like me. Do I need makeup? Better hair?

A. Society doesn't deal in that sort of justice, which is why we're so moved when we read about it. You've heard Mom: "People like you if you like them." Ironic counsel! You'll never find much to like in anybody. Humoring people can at times pass for liking them.

August 3, 1987

Q. I have an uneasy feeling about Frank. Will he pay my thousand dollars of babysitting money back?

A. He'll blow it all on quarter slots at Asbury Park next weekend, then dump you for Mary Ellen. You'll obsess about how much prettier Mary Ellen is, but as Frank himself will admit, it's not that. I wish I could say that the weeks of grieving will build your character. In fact, they'll destroy it, by conditioning you to believe you're blameless whenever you're sad. It will be the summer of your eighteenth year, supposedly the happiest, ripest time of your life. You'll oversleep every day. When you open your eyes, you'll believe for the briefest, floating minute that everything is fine, but then the open world will clench into one truth: No more Frank. I feel bad for Mom, who'll never feel comfortable with your taste again. I shiver at the poetry you're about to unleash into all your dresser drawers. As for the money, poor old Frank will never have that much again. He'll recall Asbury Park as the hijinks of a high-roller.

December 31, 1990

Q. All I want is to take things as they come. But I want the things that come to be spectacular, the kinds of things everybody says you have to work for, to want with a fierce hunger. Will I get those things without expending that much energy on them?

A. Your career is going to be one of dead ends and near misses. You'll wake up and think you should have been a journalist. The next day you'll remember: You don't even read the paper. You believe that all the exhaustion has a purpose. "Cinderella" warped you. On the other hand, remember how little human beings amount to in geological time. And who exactly makes up the large admiring audience you imagine? Remember that you don't respect very many people and that it wouldn't be fair to demand respect from them--especially when you'd feel compelled to mock them for it. Although you won't arrive at a conclusive achievement, you'll see something delicious on the horizon sometimes. You'll have moments where you're so happy you don't know where you are--which is the only way to be happy, since once you look around, you're stuck.

March 15, 1993

Q. I'm pregnant, but Ed is recently divorced and doesn't want to jump back into "that life." What should I do?

A. You do what you have to. You live through it--no permanent damage. Medical science has regulated the seething horror inside of us. Remember one thing: You lose the luxury of self-pity. No longer are you always the victim.

January 12, 1994

Q. Ed wants to spend all his time with that horrible band Downtown Bus. On New Year's Eve, he didn't even come over because he was setting up their show. They have some troublingly cute girl groupies, although Ed claims the appeal is their talent. I don't think they're very good. Will he get over them?

A. If you must, blame Downtown Bus. Of course they suck. I checked their Web site, and they're still playing at that divey Lion's Den five years later. (Note: The Internet is a wonderful mechanism for stalking ex-boyfriends; get online as soon as you can!) You fear the groupies, but they really like poor Ed, in the selfless way of groupies. They never expect him to come over by a certain time; they never talk to him about why he was wrong. You could learn a lot from them--you will, you will.

May 23, 1995

Q. Ed screwed one of Downtown Bus's groupies. I threw his clothes out the window. I've been through so much for him. Will I ever love again?

A. Tomorrow everybody will see Ed's clothes dangling in his most heart-catching poses in the big tree outside your building. As for love, what is it, really? You'll never have to see the Lion's Den again, listen to the jarring opening riffs of Downtown Bus's cover of "Helter Skelter," or smoke half a pack in the van, staring into space, while Ed is unplugging the amps. Let those absences fill your heart each day like a sweet oil.

October 30, 1996

Q. Do you think my dissertation adviser would have an affair with me if I propositioned him?

A. No, and thank God you have the civility not to. Sex not only has bad ramifications, but it's a dreadful experience, only tolerable (if stupidest) in extreme intoxication. Dreaming of sex that will never take place is fine--a private matter. You know that brilliant, luminous man is friendly to you because he pities you. At first he thought you were being humble when you described the banality of your insight and the repeated failures of your efforts. Then he saw that you were telling the truth.

January 19, 2000

Q. I quit academia, got a job, and moved in with an accountant who, if all goes well, may propose to me. I even have a car. Why is my life so empty? Should I make a rash move?

A. You know what would seem radical? If you shut up once in a while.

January 20, 2000

Q. Why don't you like me?

A. Everybody's always asked me that. I guess I think I've failed you--the moment I began to do things, I ruined your only appeal, which was inexperience. I don't think you probably like me very much, either. You had great plans for yourself. It must have been dispiriting all your life, to look into the future and see this. And also, to be honest, I have to live with the consequences of the idiotic things you keep doing.

Q. I never hated you. I was just an ordinary person. You're the one who made everything into a narrative of sin and punishment. All I really did was grow up into you. Can't you forgive me?

A. No.

Q. You didn't help me, only condemned me when I'd already failed. What do you want me to do?

A. Surprise me.

Margaret Gray has an M.A. in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her stories have appeared in The Lullwater Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. She works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she edits wall signs, brochures, leaflets, and an occasional book.


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