Decades ago, in Orange County, California, Jennifer Hawk and Tania Runyan shared a number of high school classes but traveled in different social circles. Tania was scary-nerdy-awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild—and Jen was scary-sexy-cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands Tania couldn’t pronounce. But they’ve developed a deep relationship over the years, sharing their lives and their experiences as a Christian (Tania) and an atheist (Jen) via an online correspondence.
Previously for Good Letters, Tania and Jen wrote about faith, or the lack of it, and their unlikely friendship, via the movies Contact and Rushmore.
This time, Jen asked Tania to revisit the works of Raymond Carver—in particular, the short story “Viewfinder”—as a way to imagine the loneliness she’s experiencing after her third divorce.
For more writing about the importance of artistic friendship (and rivalry), check out Image 100 and the editorial statement “Best of Rivals” by James K.A. Smith.
When you no longer have the patter of tiny human feet puffing the dust from your area rug, when you can’t do laundry because you might find one of his forgotten shirts (again), when your best friends are blips on Facebook because you can easily ignore their questions—this is when the true nature of loneliness knocks on the door, holding a camera, ready to shoot you.
A while back, you happened to type to me that you’d just read a Raymond Carver story, and I hugged myself. Shortly thereafter, we agreed to share our thoughts on my favorite Carver story, “Viewfinder.” Later (five minutes? two weeks?—when it’s just you, time has different qualities) I walked over to a cobwebbed bookshelf and lovingly fingered the broken spines of all my Carver collections.
My MFA program gave me a massive gift when they offered a graduate seminar on Carver. We read everything he ever wrote: short stories, poems, essays, course notes, interviews. Our professor told us all about the controversy of Gordon Lish and Tess Gallagher. Carver was the master minimalist, and I fell in love with the simple profundity of these stories. Nothing flashy. He writes working-class and middle-class people doing mundane-yet-bizarre activities. There are earthquakes, people in love, addiction, fishing, pool halls, photo developing, murder. But his stories feel so stark, and when you read a collection in one sitting, you may find yourself calling up a friend to meet for coffee. Carver knows how to write lonely, disconnected, and yearning.
I took my collections from the shelf and thumbed through the dog-eared, annotated, yellowed pages. The covers had become so dusty. Neglected. They have for years been tucked quietly together, lonely stories from a dead man for this dead woman.
“Viewfinder” shows us a suburban man whose wife and children have left him. We’re to assume that he spends his days in miserable loneliness. A salesman pays a call, trying to sell the man a picture of the outside of the house, which would expose the man’s self-isolation. When they face each other inside the house, we can feel that the man is desperate for companionship.
He tells the salesman, I was trying to make a connection. But at this point, the man is only an echo.
My house represents so much to me, and I often admire it from the curb when I pull up after work. I was pregnant here, and then, I was a mother. My son grew into a little man here, and I said goodbye to his childhood on these wooden floors. I stroked all of my cats on that couch before I took them to put them down. I have survived relationships, addictions, assaults, and myself—all in this house. When I post house pictures on Facebook, I want people to know how grateful I am. I capture the dusty blue paint I chose fifteen years ago. I take close ups of my succulents—planted by my mother, because I kill all plants. I snap pictures of bugs and cats and bizarre, leaf-blowing neighbors.
But I never show the inside of my house.
There’s only stuff here now.
I’m only an echo.
I don’t open my door to anyone but police and family. I’ve left up all of my hornets’ nests to deter door-to-doors. But I have daydreams of an open door, fresh air, wind-tickled leaves, friendly drop-bys. You get the feeling that the suburban man in the Carver story has been waiting for a person to engage, hoping to make that connection. The salesman has a Polaroid camera and hooks-for-hands. The homeowner is a dusty husk. Two broken men, sizing each other up, bickering like spouses, pushing each other. Needing each other. Like I need you.
I’ll open my door for you, but we need a secret knock first.
I know this suburban man. I am this man, multiplied. I’ve been married three times, and I’m on my third divorce. Three times I’ve exhaled dusty dreams in a vacant living room, alone for the first time in years. Three men have shared this mattress. I have thrice felt the fear, the confusion. I have bumbled. I continue to bumble. I’m an expert bumbler.
People snicker or squint when I tell them that I’ve been married three times. There is a fine sheen of shame that has built up more with each of my failed marriages. A sick mental perspiration that glimmers, catching people’s eyes and imaginations. It attracts dirt and dust, and dust is where the memories float. Dust memories are nightmare fuel. You can never get rid of them. They flutter endlessly in sunlight and blanket everything in the dark. You breathe them in and they breathe you out.
Given my nature and background, it’s easy to understand why I’m the kind of person who abandons partners at break-ups. Why I don’t talk to most of my family. Why I sent my son to live with his father when my latest marriage started to sour. I spend so much of my time feeling ashamed about my failures that I don’t have emotional room to foster relationships.
Not to worry, though. I have my backyard-dusty dog. He helped me raise my son and watched as my husband beat me. He listens to me without judgment and doesn’t tell me to do stuff. It’s like he’s always smiling. He doesn’t get dusty on purpose. His outside wonderland is a dry, gray forest now. The backyard is so overgrown that I had to buy heavy choppers to cut through the dandelion stalks. It is a Polaroid of physical pain, broken hearts, and ruined memories. The fire pit is falling apart. The birds are done with it. He patrols for me. I don’t go out there.
But I will. Just like the man does. Just like everyone has to. We push on, and it’s through the progression of our own picture albums that we begin to shake our dust and dry our sheen.
We talk and write together about the deepest parts of life, but we’ve never stepped foot in one another’s houses, even while growing up in adjoining towns. Now we’re two thousand miles apart, and you live a very private life. But you assure me that you’ll open the door for me if I show up on your steps with a “secret knock.” I think these letters to one another are part of our complicated passcode, the words we slip under each other’s doors.
Raymond Carver’s “Viewfinder” speaks to your mixed feelings about your home, a blue Southern California Cape Cod that echoes with beauty and heartache. When I first read “Viewfinder” a couple of months ago, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. A man with hooks for hands shows up, unsolicited, to take Polaroids of another man’s house and sell the prints to the owner. In his somewhat uncomfortable interactions with the man, the owner reveals his feelings of abandonment and loneliness. The story ends with the owner posing on his roof throwing rocks, facing his past with defiance as the photographer snaps away.
It was a question mark ending at first, but the feelings are starting to sink in.
I’ve been looking at a lot of house pictures these days (house porn, as some of my friends call it) because our family has decided to move across town. It’s too easy to click through real estate listings as if these glorious containers of epic family histories are nothing more than dimensions and dollars. I know that in order to survive the move this fall, I’ll have to divorce myself from some of the emotions associated with my own house of fourteen years. The corner of our concrete patio imprinted with five hands, the little brush stroke of green on the ceiling from when our oldest “helped” paint the walls at the age three. It’s maternal torture to leave those behind.
I won’t be looking at pictures of my own house any time soon. So I’ll become the photographer in “Viewfinder” and study pictures of your house instead.
I haven’t been to your house to take pictures, but the ones you’ve emailed me send tiny shocks of home––the most primal definition of it––through my body. Palms, eucalyptus, bougainvillea, and ficus: these are the plants from my place of origin. The criss-cross pattern of your window panes match the ones on my mother’s house, the windows I peered out of as a lonely child on a sunny street.
What you call a dusty blue house holds the brilliance of ocean meeting sky.
Your house is a place of trauma, a place of survival and growth, a place of motherhood. You hide inside it, “feeling ashamed about [your] failures” as you “bumble” through memories that float in the dust.
When your third husband moved out, he made sure to leave the worst parts of himself behind. For weeks, you shared pictures of the bloody smears and specks of his drug-induced rages as you cleaned your space with feverish resolve. I found those pictures maddening and exhilarating: your house, your experiences, your memory, and your power. All yours to nurture and erase.
Next time I travel to California, I will come to your house like the “Viewfinder” photographer. God willing, I’ll bring two hands. But I’ll also bring plenty of anxieties, those old comforts, and sit with you as we listen to the apocalypse of Disneyland’s nightly fireworks and brace for earthquakes beneath our feet. I’ll take pictures of you posing with your house––no, attaching yourself to it, as if you’re a pillar added to the architecture fifteen years ago.
I will take a picture of you standing over the threshold where the last husband left. I will take a picture of you standing by the crumbling fire pit.
“Why would I want a photograph of this tragedy?” the narrator says as the man shows him a snapshot of his house.
Carver’s homeowner’s family had left him, and the man was alone. You, too, feel like an echo these days, a dusty husk in an empty living room. But your echoes are as real as the sounds that caused them. And I hear them.
I will take a picture of you standing outside of your own windows, looking inside. I will take a picture of you on your roof, lobbing rocks at the world that has made you feel so bad. I will take pictures of you in all these broken-down spaces, including the spot by the back door, where your dog sits in a shaft of light that ignites the dust like sparks.