I prepared for my book reading last week at the Corner Bookstore, on 93rd Street and Madison Avenue, (my first reading, ever), the way I prepare for most new life experiences: I broke out in hives, didn't sleep for a week, misplaced the mascara, was limned in a perpetual clammy sweat, couldn't breathe and felt bizarrely seasick. I never expected to have something friends kept telling me (to great churlishness on my part) I would inevitably experience at this occasion: fun.
My memoir, published a month ago, is called Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home and Life Was a Catch-22 and the last thing I wanted to read about, or heaven forfend, answer questions about, was Joe Heller, the Apthorp, or my life. What ever had possessed me to say yes to something so freighted with the potential to be so mortifying?
Some things, many things, are wriggle-outable. This was not. Morbid shyness be damned! The people arranging and sponsoring this were good people, it was a terrific store, invitations had gone out, many people had said they'd be there so how could I fail to be?
For weeks beforehand, I could not pick which pages to read. Were 3 too few? Were 4 too many? Why did a room full of grown-ups want to be read to aloud anyway? What if my voice was unsteady, unsure? What if I had no voice? What if no one showed up?
The evening of the event, I put my contact lenses in backwards. I misplaced my mascara. I think I changed clothes 27 times.
But in the end, people showed up. The room was full of faces familiar, distantly familiar and also foreign. Some of these people you only see at weddings and funerals and this, to me, felt like something in between. One woman carried a tiny gray poodle in a tote bag. My friends and also old family friends, some on canes, all determined to be present, were already there when I arrived. One woman, someone who went to school with my mother, drove down from Massachusetts. Past and current Apthorp neighbors came. My internist was in attendance. He loves words and language and books, but I suspect he also may have been worried that I was so frightened, I might drop dead. (In which case, there would not have been much for him to do.) He and I had spoken on the phone the night before and I told him the whole evening sounded terrible to me, a grown-woman, standing up and reading her own work to people? He asked if I'd ever done it before and I said no. He paused. "Well, that's like saying you hate the taste of mackerel. Taste it at least, then you can figure out what you think of it. Give it a chance. If you don't like mackerel you never have to eat it again."
As it tuned out, I was lucky. A new friend who writes for Library Journal offered to help out and did most of the heavy lifting by introducing me, telling everyone how reluctant I was to do a reading and all the various ways I had thought to escape the occasion.
I read three pages from my book, a light bit about how my father used to select horribly designed shirts from a place on Broadway called Shirt King, chose Christmas Eve treats for us in stores that no one else would ever eat, gave my mother the Christmas gift of a royalty check every year (whatever country had happened to roll in around that time. Denmark was a bad year for her, Germany a very good one), and how he always got my birthday wrong, to the day, by exactly one month, my entire life. I looked up from the page every now and then and somehow managed to hold my place. It was extraordinary. People laughed and clapped. The terror dissipated. I had a British friend there, waiting in the wings to read the pages just in case I really couldn't do it, or the audience wanted to hear them read properly, with British lilt and extra clarity, but somehow I didn't need him.
When it was time for Q & A, I told the room I'd happily answer any and all questions not about family, sex or money. That streamlined the evening. Soon I was signing books, talking to friends. One friend of my father's, George Mandel, a boyhood friend of Dad's from Coney Island, gave me the thumbs up signal. My brother was there. Old pals from the ad business were there, from childhood, grade school, every stage of life. Almost everyone was there but the people my book was mostly about, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, no longer among us.
I went home happy, floating on air. In the end, I was my father's daughter after all. He loved PR, never missed the opportunity to get whatever he could for his books. I had never before understood why or how. I had always marveled at him for this, at the effrontery that this Brooklyn schnook possessed, to actually want to stand up there before crowds of strangers, joking and preening and laughing at his own written words in his inimitable Coney Islandese.
But the other night, I suddenly saw and understood all of it. Reading just three pages changed the whole panorama. And it wasn't just the fact that I have Joe Heller's hammy DNA as part of my genetic makeup. Something else came to me. For all the self-deprecation and doubt we writers express about our own finished work, in the end it is this darling thing we have nurtured and crafted and stayed up nights with. And so there is a part of us that cannot help but love it, hopelessly, bottomlessly. Suddenly you would kill for that book. Whether we know it or not or say it or not, we love it, we have to, and want to help it cross the freeway and arrive there in one piece. That's what takes over, for who else will love it if we don't? It needs us.
After my reading, I was astonished, am still astonished. As it turned out, I loved reading aloud. I loved seeing loved ones. The mascara turned up the next day, for some inexplicable reason, in the freezer.
I love the taste of mackerel.