Editor’s note: Much to Your Chagrin (©Atria Books 2009) chronicles the year that twenty-nine year old writer Suzanne Guillette spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers and friends alike in New York City. But as she compiled the stories of others, her own life began to unravel in a spectacular and, yes, embarrassing fashion. In this excerpt, Guillette goes on a date with William, her new boyfriend, and winds up at his apartment.  Calamity ensues.

 

Tonight, rain settles into the neighborhood. When William comes to meet you at the door, he waves a half-silly, excited hello through the door. You have not sensed much pretense with this man, and you, one who has never been very good at just dipping her toes in the water, you feel your own face lighting up in a very similar way.

“Hi, sweetie!” he yells through the glass.

You walk into his apartment, which is located in a regal brownstone. It is a large studio, with a small kitchen off to the side of the main room and a back deck. The ceilings are high, the walls nearly empty.

“Should we bring one umbrella or two?”

As you start to answer, “One!” he cuts you off.

“I know. More romantic, right?”

Soon, you two are walking arm in arm through the rain under one umbrella, as William describes his latest court case. You like his large frame and especially how your head fits perfectly into the space below his shoulder. You jump over corner puddles, but always end up curling back into his side.

A small current of unease sets in once you are inside the West Village eatery. Jack lives somewhere nearby, but you do not know exactly where, because you broke up just before he moved in. You hope, with every inch of your flip-flopping stomach, that you don’t run into him, not now, not ever.


After dinner of thin crust pizza and fried meatballs, you stop at the corner deli and pick up some microwave popcorn and ice cream. You stand in his kitchen as William unpacks the groceries, looking out the glass kitchen door. Across the way, you see an apartment building. That’s one thing you love about New York, peering into the ways that other people live. You notice plants, who’s watching what on tv. You can feel the fog is lifting, and it is not because William is in your life. It is because you made a choice, a small, stupidly long overdue choice to dump Jack as your “agent,” your first step toward embracing what is really in front of you. You would almost say that you are “happy,” if that word didn’t scare the shit out of you.


The apartment building directly behind William’s has rectangular windows lit in erratic patterns, one on the top floor, diagonally connected to another on the second floor. You used to look into other people’s windows like these, and imagine what was inside: worn bookshelves, lovingly-stained kitchen tables, the scent of garlic breezing through the apartment. You used to think that this kind of stability was going to be perpetually out of your reach. You will not, cannot claim that you will ever feel truly grounded again, but in this quiet moment, scanning these other apartments all by your lonesome, you are inspired to breathe deep.

But then, something catches your eye. Across the way, in the apartment directly across from William’s, the lights are on. You see a young man with long-ish brown hair sitting at his computer—wearing that unmistakable, worn blue t-shirt. When your eyes fix closer on his face, you feel yourself inhale sharply.

Jack?

Jack!

Jack.

As you squint closer, wanting to make sure whether or not it is indeed your ex-boyfriend sitting there across the way—hadn’t you just declared, with your volume on high, that he was out of your life, forever, like, last week?—you feel a little dizzy. Faintly, you hear William’s voice in the background, as he tells you about how much he loves this neighborhood. But you are glued to this particular set of windows. Slowly, you notice Jack’s head starting to turn in your direction, as if he senses someone staring at him.

Oh! If he saw me, how much of a stalker would I feel like?

As his head turns, you do the only thing that seems to make any sense: you hit the deck.

“Uh, what are you doing?” William asks, when he sees you suddenly crouching down by his back door.

“Nothing, nothing,” you say.

You are not about to tell William, not in this moment when your heart is beating so fast. You could throw up. What are the odds? In a city of 8.5 million people—what are the freaking odds?

Your mind reels further as you remember what William and you had done on the couch before going out, in front of his living room windows, windows that you now know look directly into Jack’s apartment.

Oh, lord.

As you crawl on your hands and knees into the living room, where you yank the blinds shut with one fierce pull, your mind skips through, over, beyond thoughts that are fast, fleeting:

Maybe it’s not him.

Am I losing my mind?

What on earth is this universe trying to tell me?

“Honey,” William calls. “What are you doing?”

In your initial shock, you sit there, alone with the knowledge of this very bizarre, unbelievable coincidence. Or is there something to be learned?

Well, of course there is. You are too impatient, though, to wait for this lesson to come to you, quiet and still, months down the road when you are in some cool grocery store examining organic eggplants in the produce aisle. Impatient, you stretch one guess over everything, for the sake of convenience: This must just be a reminder.

If there is a part of you that still pines for Jack—and you know that there is—this must just be a very literal reminder: how you feel here, with William, your joy in the mundane, is at least an improvement for how you felt with Jack, all caught up in the mire of fantasy, inhaling the smoke and smiling way too long into the mirrors that you’d hoped would be real. But weren’t.

That’s really what this “coincidence” is about, you tell yourself, one too many times for it to be actually true.

**

Copyright © 2009 by Suzanne Guillette. Reprinted by permission. Excerpted from the book Much to Your Chagrin by Suzanne Guillette published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Now available at your local bookstore and at www.simonsays.com. ISBN: 9781416585978, $25.00.



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SUZANNE GUILLETTE grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, where she remembers sledding on oceanside sand dunes in the winter and watching thunderstorms on the beach in the summer. Although she now lives in New York City, she still manages to spend a decent amount of time in or near the water.

A writer and occasional storyteller, Suzanne’s work has appeared in Tin House, Self, Publisher’s Weekly, and Time Out New York, in addition to other publications. Suzanne teaches autobiography and memoir-writing; she is very grateful to the New York Writer’s Coalition, for its inspiring work in the NYC-area and its accessible, brilliant methodology, from which she has learned so much.

Her first book, Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment, chronicles a year that Suzanne spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers on the streets of Manhattan, which, not incidentally, happened to be the year before she turned thirty. After a heated fling with her literary agent morphs into unexpected heartbreak, Suzanne’s life, every so slowly begins to unravel, bringing her to the eventual realization that the person she should really be querying about shame is herself.

When she’s not writing or reading, Suzanne pursues dance, which has been a lifelong love. She also enjoys yoga, travel, the company of loved ones and cheese.

To learn more, please visit her at www.suzanneguillette.com.

5 responses to “Excerpt from Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment

  1. Greg says:

    Wow. I suppose I need to read the book to find out if it really was Jack across the way, but what a shock.

    Reminds me of walking hand-in-hand with a new girlfriend I didn’t like too much, didn’t find very attractive even, and running into my ex in the train station. I wanted to blurt out: “But she’s really funny!” But I didn’t.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Nice!
    I hope it was Jack. Is that bad of me? But it makes for such a good story.
    Welcome aboard!

  3. Real life is strange and tricky. Certainly more than anything we could ever possibly make-up….. makes you wonder how we even have the nerve to get out of bed and leave the house in the morning. I congratulate you on that … and then writing it all down in a most wonderful way.

  4. Lenore Zion says:

    i hate when it looks like i’m stalking men i’m not really stalking!

  5. Ducky says:

    I hope it’s Jack, too. Serendipity is a cheeky bitch sometimes.

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