I begin by stressing that in this context I am faithfully an unfaithful lover, too easily captivated by a fresh turn of line that opens my heart in a new way, a dramatic arc like the sole of a ballerina, an image so sharp it stabs. When this happens, it’s like the first time all over again, with prior infatuations feeling like warm-ups for the real thing.
So I have a long list of ex’s. When I tried to remember my first, what came to mind immediately was O. Henry. To write this, I put in my suitcase and brought with me to Kabul a collection of his short stories that I still own, given to me in childhood, with a bookplate on which I’d signed my name in grade-school neatness. I wondered if all these years later, diving into O. Henry from the raw distance of Afghanistan, I would reject my previous admiration—if, upon rereading, he would seem too Hallmark-greeting-card simple.
In those days, I didn’t fold down page corners or mark in margins. I was taught to keep books pristine, and hadn’t yet adopted a commitment to making a book thoroughly my own, so the collection of short stories I own offers no clues about where I lingered or what I thought back then. I dove in, randomly selecting several stories to reread these years later.
Of course there is the classic “The Gift of the Magi,” which I reread though I didn’t need to; it is clear in my memory. Then I moved to “Jimmy Hayes and Muriel.” Consider the first two lines: “Supper was over, and there had fallen upon the camp the silence that accompanies the rolling of corn-husk cigarettes. The water hole shone from the dark earth like a patch of fallen sky.” Next “A Blackjack Bargainer” with its opening line:
“The most disreputable thing in Yancey Goree’s law office was Goree himself, sprawled in his creaky old armchair.”
By now I’d remembered the reasons I loved O. Henry as a child. The stories are short, sometimes more like outlines of stories, but the first sentences often draw the reader irrevocably in, the surprise endings are foreshadowed perfectly, and a dry sense of humor runs through the work. I finished my brief foray into O. Henry in Afghanistan, as I put it to myself, with “The Last Leaf,” a brilliant story which I recalled as I reread, and which holds much more than its few pages would suggest. The lines below, for instance, hint at a deep relationship between two women roommates, especially inspiring when you consider it was written by a man who lived from 1862 to 1910.
“Has she anything on her mind worth thinking about twice—a man, for instance?”
“A man?” said Sue, with a jew’s-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth—but no, doctor, there is nothing of the kind.”
Sometimes I think about the mountains of words—good words—already in the world, and I strain to make sense of my drive to add to them. If I only wanted to explore my private experiences, wouldn’t a journal be enough? But then I recall the characters who have pulled away from the page to become part of my cellular makeup, like O. Henry’s grumpily empathetic Behrman relinquishing his life to paint that leaf onto a tree in a storm. And I return to what I think I knew even as a child, even the first time I fell in love: I have no choice. What else can I do except mimic these examples, and try to allow the characters who bounce around in my own head a bit of time in this world as well?