Excerpt

“That Is Shocking”

Kate Doyle

July 21, 2023 
The following is a story from Kate Doyle's collection I Meant it Once. Doyle’s short stories have been published in No Tokens, Electric Literature, A Public Space, Split Lip, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. Originally from New England, she is a former bookseller and a 2021 A Public Space Writing Fellow. She has lived in New York City, Amsterdam, and Ithaca, NY.

This happened to me when I was still in college. It was winter, dark, a new semester. Valentine’s Day, no less.

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I remember that night, in the aftermath, I put on my coat and walked the four blocks between my dorm and Tom’s, in the extreme cold, to relate the events as they had transpired. Tom said, That is shocking, and sat me on his dorm-room twin bed. He produced blue Kleenex after blue Kleenex until I had somewhat calmed down.

I said to Tom, Maybe if the scones had not been heart-shaped? I would not feel so, I don’t know.

A few days later, my friend Charlotte came across a red, heart-shaped cookie cutter. She’d been digging around for a packet of instant hot chocolate in the kitchen of the campus literary house where she and I were roommates. She found the heart-shape jumbled in a drawer of various utensils, and she brought it to the dining room to peer at me through the empty center. I was sitting with my homework and hers fanned around me on the table, and she said, with a blurted, wry laugh: Margaret do you know what this cookie cutter would be great for making?

Shh, I said, looking around—because he lived there too. But Charlotte could not stop laughing. She had the kind of laugh you wanted to be part of. People in the living room looked over at us.

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At the time, I thought I understood the lesson in this story: namely, if you decide to end things with someone on the grounds you are too busy to see her, then materializing to say so with a plateful of heart-shaped scones you’ve spent the entirety of an afternoon preparing may fail to suggest the fullness of your schedule.

I was in a literature class that semester called Self and Others, which is how I’d met Tom, who was a poet. I loved walking with Tom across the quad after class, trying on his snarky opinions, the sun on our faces. Tom said, Let us begin a collaboration of mournful lyric essays, compiled from incidents like this one of yours, and each one will conclude that is shocking!  He added, I wasn’t going to say so in case it all worked out, but honestly, he’s marginally shorter than you, and definitely going a little bald at the age of nineteen. So let’s not proceed as if he were a loss.

I thought this was unkind and very funny. But I said how it was not about loss, rather about humiliation, about being treated as disposable, about human decency, and also how it isn’t fair to tell a person that you’re breaking up in those words precisely when you have not, in fact, really been dating—you have only done things like make out in the back stairwell of the literary society dorm, the stairwell where we kept the communal vacuum cleaner, a stairwell, he told me, no one ever uses, which did not even turn out to be true. Natalie from the third floor had appeared, descending, on her way to make oatmeal cookies in the kitchen. I had been unable to disentangle my feet from the hose of the vacuum.

It is such a stupid story of course—but it is one of those that stays with you, I could not let it go. Frenetic, intent, I was known in those years for being tightly wound. Calm down, people would say to me. There is still, at this college I went to, a hole in the wall of an obscure corner of the English department, kicked there by me. That’s unrelated to this particular story, but illustrative of how I was then. What got me about the heart scones is how I had not anticipated it—was unable to stop it.

Whereas other people seemed able to end their romantic things more skillfully, more tidily.

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Take Charlotte: she’d been sort of seeing this friend of ours, Jamey, and though they were no longer really together, they were still friends, and he still came around. No problem. She was always telling me how they felt very cool, at ease, and on the same page about things. In fact on this same infamous Valentine’s Day I had seen them together in our kitchen, boiling water for pasta, heating marinara on the stovetop, and it had seemed to me impressively—enviably—normal and fine.

Stretched next to Tom on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, I remember saying how the worst part was this: after the text that said Happy Valentine’s, can I come over, I have a present for you, and my text back Oh thanks sure, see you soon, I spent the intervening half hour feeling guilty, not having any Valentine to give in return. The sun was going down outside my window. Shadows lengthened on the parking lot. I remember I contemplated running to the college bookstore, in falling darkness, for a a chocolate bar.

After we cleaned up my wrinkled clumps of tissue, strewn all around Tom’s floor and bed, he said surely I had at least earned a bowl of chocolate soft-serve for my humiliation. So we crossed the quad to the dining hall where, under the high ceiling and fluorescent lights, we encountered Charlotte making a quesadilla in the Tastes of the World line. I always loved running into Charlotte, finding her in places outside our room where I had not expected her. She said, What’s wrong, why do you look so sad? I said, I’m not sad, these are tears of indignation and rage, not tears of sadness. I am, sad-wise, unaffected.

The next time I ran into him, I said: I have your plate. But he said to me, with his warm smile, his backpack slung from one shoulder, Oh I just took that from the dining hall once. The plate is not so important to me, you can have it. I said, I am not really interested in keeping your plate, you are absolutely taking it home. So he obliged, and came down the hall, and waited in my open doorway for me to give it back.

Tom disapproved of my living in the literary house to begin with. I write poems, he said. I don’t need to be in some club that confirms it, and neither do you. I remember he was sitting cross-legged on top of the washing machine, open notebook in his lap, and I was on the floor, trying to feed a handful of quarters to a jammed dryer. He started to compose some lines, saying: I’m writing an ode to a beautiful old house, where everyone living inside it is weird. Don’t worry, he said. You’re exempt. I laughed; I had the bright sense of being singled out.

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Listen, I remember saying to Charlotte, one night in our room. Using the term “break-up” when you are explicitly not dating is like saying you’re abandoning your career in the ballet definitively when actually you’ve only been to class two to four times ever in your life, and all those times you just talked about how you really weren’t sure about ballet. Charlotte peeled back the covers of her bed. She said, You said this to me yesterday. I said, I did? She said, There are worse things in life than your scones, you know.

Of course I know that, I said. Of course I know.

It was like I could not stop telling the story. Reactions tended to divide: Many agreed that the scones were tainted, a betrayal. Others would say, But perfectly good scones Margaret! And you didn’t even eat them? On the night when Charlotte found the heart-shaped cookie cutter, our friend Jamey was there again—the one Charlotte had sort of been dating, though now they were only friends. He was working on his honors thesis in French translation at the far end of the table, and he said, one elbow planted in the spread-open spine of a book, pen slid behind his ear: One question, were they good scones? Charlotte slung the cookie cutter across the tabletop at him. She said, Margaret threw the scones in the garbage, of course, she threw them all away.

Jamey, contemplative, said, I don’t know. Perfectly good scones? I might have eaten them.

Charlotte looked darkly into her cup of hot chocolate as Jamey asked me to clarify: what flavor were the scones? Which, of course, I couldn’t say. He was partial to cranberry himself, he told us. I didn’t take much offense to this compared to Charlotte, who made an excuse to go to the kitchen. Admittedly, I had always had sort of a thing for Jamey, so maybe I was forgiving. He had cut his hair and shaved his beard during a trip home over Presidents Day. At the far end of the table, he frowned his new, clean-shaven frown over his French-English dictionary. I remember I lifted the heart-shape and looked at him through it.

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Sometimes in retrospect I can’t make sense of myself. Like how in the moments the scones were being foisted on me—one lamp lit on my desk, and the sun setting red outside my window behind the dark, bare trees lined up on the far side of the parking lot, branching like veins against the sky—I kept picking up the plate while he was talking and trying to give the scones back, then thinking this was petulant and setting them back down. I was at one end of the bed and he sat at the other, close to the door. He still wore his coat. He had one hand easily grasping the bedpost. The whole room was lit beautifully, warm and aglow. Outside the dusky sky shaded soft, electric blue, and I was like a puppet with this plate, just lifting it off the dresser and returning it to the dresser, again and again and again and again.

I remember him saying to me once with merry concern, taking his hands out of my hair: I’m not looking to be with someone, like in a dating sense. We were just inside the doorway to the abandoned common room. Late January, 3am—in one corner the artificial Christmas tree still stood, plugged in and blinking. My cardigan flung, heaped and shadowy, on the floor.

But surely, said Tom, all this merits inclusion in the collected That Is Shocking. He also wanted to include my story about Robbie from the second floor, who used to lend me this soft crew team sweatshirt of his I loved, who was always leaving notes on the whiteboard by my door, and who once took me on a much-anticipated date during which he talked mostly of an ex-girlfriend still in high school. That’s icky, I remember saying, pushing a piece of sushi around the dregs of my soy sauce, picturing this girl who did not yet have a driver’s license, thinking that now I would have to give back the sweatshirt. Robbie said, It isn’t, you don’t even know her. He said, You don’t know.

At one point, again putting down the scones, I said, You’re too busy to keep seeing me? I was cognizant of being a little fixated on his fingers, washed in yellow lamplight where they held the bedpost. That semester he was chairman of Waffle Sundays at our literary house and a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team. I said, You’re aware I’m busy too? He said, in his friendly way, so benevolent, thoughtful: No, that’s how busy I’ve been. Too busy to notice that you’re busy.

Fuck that, said Tom, writing joyfully, as the dryer, finally, started to rumble. He said, I’m actually allotting a whole stanza for this guy.

I kept having to see him, because we both lived in that house. One morning, for example, I encountered him in the kitchen. It had snowed all night, and now it was sunny—a blinding, sparkly day. Light streaked in across the littered countertops: none of us washed our dishes here. He said, Oh Margaret, hey, I’ve been wanting to give you something. I refrained from saying, Whatever it is, please let it be shaped like a heart. He knelt and rooted in his backpack, and I watched the noon winter sun catch the bald part of his scalp, glow rosy in the soft rounds of his earlobes. Finally, he turned back and offered up to me, in his cupped hands, an ugly tangle of hairpins. Taken one by one from my hair, the night I’d stayed. Tenderly? They looked like bugs, clinging together this way. Ungracefully, I clawed them from his palms. Then he re-zipped his backpack while I considered that these hairpins had once been the source of an actual nice moment. How many of these do you wear? he’d said, incredulous, awed. So many, I said. He kissed my neck hungrily, affectionately, in the exquisite darkness of his room. I remember I felt a funny, small thrill that we even knew each other, that we’d come from different places to meet at this place, in this time.

The fact is that within a few years, Jamey and I would end up living together in New York.

By then—for related reasons—Charlotte and I were no longer in touch.

On the day Jamey broke up with me in the kitchen of the apartment we’d shared for almost a year, I threw a glass into our sink where it broke into pieces. Jamey looked disconcerted, highly embarrassed, as he picked the larger shards from the drain. The bright overhead lamp caught the broken points, the profusion of glittering fragments. I said, Tom and I swore years ago we’d write a book about terrible endings. I want you to know when I put you in it, I will be unforgiving.

Jamey had this big piece of glass pinched between his thumb and forefinger, his shirtsleeve rolled up. He said, Tom? I said, Unforgivable.

Tom had gone on to do sort of well, writing-wise. I would go see him do readings at bars. He won an obscure award for a chapbook he did, and a prize for a late revision of the old-house-weird-people poem. Drunk at a reading on the Lower East Side, not long after Jamey moved out, I pressed my hand to Tom’s forearm and said, Remember our collaboration? He said he remembered the title being important, but that it escaped him now.

I put my empty beer glass down on the bar and said, That is shocking.

Holy shit, Tom said, That’s amazing. He said, I really forgot.

We determined we would actually write it. We started meeting at my half-empty apartment on weekends. We would lie around on my bed drinking coffee, and he would write, and I would write, and we would compare our notes. Once, after I read a bit aloud about it being shocking that I’d started dating my best friend Charlotte’s boyfriend Jamey in the first place, Tom said, face pressed to one of my pillows, Whatever happened to her? Are you still friends?

I said, You don’t remember?

I felt humiliated and betrayed, is what I used to say about the scones—which is the kind of thing I imagined Charlotte might say to me now, if we ever ran into each other. Internet photos implied she too had moved to New York, like pretty much everyone we ever knew in college. Prior to my break-up with Jamey, I had invested significant mental energy inventing numberless unexpected, excruciating ways we might run into her—as, for example, we once encountered Robbie from the second floor on a Brooklyn-bound L. Pleasantries having been exchanged, Robbie had detailed his revived relationship with the girl from high school, now 22.

Per our arrangement, Jamey came for his share of our belongings while I was not at home. He took the nightstand, the big plant, the most light-giving lamp. The blue ceramic French press that was actually mine. Most of what was hanging on our walls, though not the picture hooks, of course, which stayed behind: floating above the sofa, over the toilet, next to my nightstand. Dead-center on the expanse of wall dividing living room from bedroom. Four of them, vertically, on the narrow strip of wall between kitchen and bathroom. One Sunday, Tom picked through all my bracelets and necklaces, which I was keeping in a bowl on the floor where the nightstand had been. He went around the apartment, draping his favorites from picture hooks—I’m trying to fill up all these weird gaps, he told me.

He moved some of my books into the spot where the plant had been.

One Sunday, at dusk, the sky turning red in the apartment windows, we needed more coffee. Tom brewed some and we watched it rise in the glass carafe of the inferior drip coffeemaker. I sat on the kitchen counter, in the shadow of the refrigerator, kicking my heels, one-two one-two, against the lower cabinets. I said, I should have known about Jamey the moment the words “perfectly good scones” passed his lips. I said, My litmus test going forward will be, anyone I’m inviting into my life in any way gets told the story—and only people who would not ever eat the scones are permitted anywhere near me. Friends, lovers, colleagues, I mean it.

Holy shit, I forgot about Scone Guy, said Tom, washing out a mug for himself. He said, I totally forgot.

He said, Do you ever feel weird this still bothers you?

He said, Where even is he these days?

I said, Let’s pretend I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t keep track of him.

It is possible by then I was crying. I took out my phone to text Jamey that the French press was mine, and I wanted it back. I wrote, I can’t wait until tomorrow. Bring it here now.  He wrote, I’ve been drinking too much coffee Margaret, the French press is not so important to me. He texted, It’s fine. He said, You can have it.

Of course I can have it, I told him. It’s mine! I said this last part out loud, and Tom’s eyes widened, he looked at the floor. Jamey didn’t text back so I dialed his number, which rang and rang and went to voicemail. I called a second time, a third time, the trill of the phone repeating in my ear. Just have some coffee, said Tom, and I ignored him. I paced the ransacked rooms of my apartment. Outside the kitchen windows, the sky grew dark, its color drained. I thought I might burst into flames.

I can’t pick up the phone, Jamey texted finally. Now’s not a good time.  I’m not going to come over there now, he said. Just calm down, okay?

He said: Take it easy.

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From “That Is Shocking” from I Meant It Once © 2023 by Kate Doyle. Reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. “That Is Shocking” originally appeared in Bodega Magazine




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