This morning, as I posted news about a literary event of mine in Greenwich Village on Sept. 30, I had an epiphany: I’m about to read at a New York City café, from a novel that’s partly about reading at a New York City cafe.
And the reading depicted in my book is based on a real-life reading I gave in 1999.
My life echoes my novel, which echoes my life.
Let’s walk through this. A central scene in my book, The Opposite of Everything, takes place at Eureka Joe’s, a now-defunct coffee house less than a mile away from CorneliaStreet Café, where I’m actually reading Sept. 30. Fourteen Septembers earlier, in fact, I also read at Eureka Joe’s – and met the woman who would become my wife.
Just like in the novel.
Fact meets fiction. Meets fact. Over coffee. Discuss.
I remember that real-life evening in 1999 at Eureka Joe’s like my own face. It was autumn, chilly outside. I climbed the stage of the Chelsea coffee house and nervously gripped the podium. I scanned the crowd for Ingrid, an olive-skinned Latin woman, 30s, lush mane of blondish brown hair. I’d only seen a photo of her. It was to be our first date, and I was sweating bullets. I’d invited her to a reading of mine – without telling her it would be a public airing of my turbulent life, of which she knew little.
And where the hell was she? Just minutes to go before my turn to read, she hadn’t shown yet. I shuffled my manuscript and swigged water to coat my dry throat.
This was just a few years after my divorce and cancer diagnosis; I’d been taking creative writing classes to help me sort through my feelings. Ingrid and I had been exchanging emails for several weeks after I posted an ad on an online dating site. She was a doctor from Colombia, training to be one in the United States. Wary of scaring her off, I didn’t mention anything to her about my struggles. But then I had the brilliant idea to invite her to my literary reading.
I was about to find out in a big way how she’d react. But she hadn't shown up yet.
The lights dimmed over the audience. I set the woman’s photo on the podium, next to the manuscript. Clasping the microphone, I cleared my throat.
“This is a story,” I began, “about my life.”
As I read of my brush with divorce and disease, I spied a woman entering the half-dark coffee house who resembled the photo on the podium. She held a photo in her hand, presumably of me. As I stood gazing out, I felt as if I were reciting to her, throwing out a test to see if she could handle my life. My first wife couldn’t. The relationship had collapsed under the pressure of an ill husband and an uncertain future.
Later, as we chatted over beers, she told me her car had overheated in the Lincoln Tunnel on the way here. Luckily she had a jug of anti-freeze in her trunk, a towel to delicately unscrew her hot radiator cap, and the steady practiced hands of a primary care physician from Colombia. She’d made it. She also asked me if the story I told was true. I said Yes. A strong woman, she could handle a lot of things. Less than a year later we were married.
This story, as I mentioned, forms the basis for the relationship at the center of my novel. In my novel, as in my life, the protagonist’s wife accepts all of him.
Ironically, though, when I stand up next month before listeners at Cornelia Street Café, Ingrid won’t be there. Not this time around. As a family doctor with her practice near our upstate New York home, it’s tough for her to get away on weekdays.