Also, in prep, the day before, my husband had given me a 10 minute primer on boxing, the subject dear to the author’s heart, one that she’s written about and might make a good conversation piece, but he lost me at Welterweight. I was already anticipating the dreadful silences as in a penitentiary after the call for lights out.
Would she think her Stony Brook Southampton MFA student/ chaperone a bore, a writer without an ounce of irony?
So, for the first time in my chatty little life, I listened. I wanted to hear what she had to say. We talked about all the sprawling homes I drove alongDune Road, and the mansions she had remembered when visiting the east end on other occasions. She said she hoped that the people who lived in all those houses had the good fortune to share that kind of opulence with friends and children. She mentioned once owning a rather large home at one time in her life, and then added that she had no children. Ah, I thought, but she’d given life to so many characters in her stories, perhaps all eventually became her surrogate children.
And then it happened, as if I’d purposely dialed up 1-800-PLOT. We got lost, not too lost but lost enough to share some memorable moments. I had been driving along the beach road and finally pulled into the driveway where I expected the dinner to be held─ the private home of the generous benefactors of the writing program. But: two roads diverged in the drive, and I, not having been there before, took the one opposite the sign that read: SERVICE.
After walking several yards in the thickly, pebbled driveway, we came upon a magnificent, cedar and glass beach home that hovered over us like a cliff. What felt strange was that upon approach, there was utter silence─ no voices, no music, not a hint of laughter. Steps, steps and more steps, and I shouted out a very Streisand-ian:
Hello, is anybody home? Still, nothing. Then the dreaded words from Ms. Joyce C’s soft, yet serious mouth: “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said. Of course, my heart was beating so fast, I began to think: so this is how I will die: with Joyce Carol Oates, holding my limp wrist, in a stranger’s zillion dollar driveway inSouthampton.” After several more shouts, we came upon the house and a sliding glass entrance. Peeking in, I could see the huge modern kitchen. There were photos everywhere. Ms. Joyce C. seemed nervous as I began to slide open the glass doors. “We would never do that inDetroit,” she said, the place she had lived during the most riotous time. I glanced over at her and smiled. And then suddenly, I felt completely in charge. We were already late. There was no other choice.
I said: “Well, if so and so’s photo is taped across that stainless refrigerator’s door, we’re in the right house.”
We entered, Ms. Joyce C. skulking right behind me. And there it was…a photo of our host with his daughter, wife, and their adorable dog. I could have cried. I bellowed one loud, HELLO, which brought a sleepy teenage girl out of a darkened hallway. I told her we were here for the dinner, and as if she’d been an air traffic controller her entire fifteen years, she stretched out both arms and pointed toward a pathway that led to the guest house, where she said the party was being held.
Carefully, watching our footing, we followed the amber lights along a curvy pathway fringed with hydrangeas and sheaves of sprouting lavender, all bedded in a multitude of glistening rock and cedar mulch. In the mist and fog, the stroll felt heavenly, nearly magical. Ms. Joyce C. asked me about a flower and miraculously I remembered its name. Soon we were greeted by the hostess and several other writers staying at the house for the duration of the conference. Among them were Frank McCourt, Billy Collins and Amy Tan. I stepped back as one by one they greeted my charge as though she were a first lady in our great history, someone noble and responsible for great change. And isn’t that what writing often did? Of course, I thought, my chin tilted toward the cerulean sky. In so many ways, she had already changed me.