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Post Road Magazine #32

Recommendation: Calamity and Other Stories

Nicole Haroutunian

Calamity and Other Stories by Daphne Kalotay is a book I came to at random, on the shelves of my hometown library about a decade ago. I must have run through my stash of holiday reading too quickly and needed a supplement. Drawn to it because of the lopsided cupcake on the cover, I was taken in by ten-year-old friends Rhea and Callie in the first story, "Serenade," and the specificity of the startling moment Rhea witnesses between their mothers.

The story "Anniversary" comes at the book's midpoint. It is full of funny, telling passages like this one, where the protagonist, Eileen, describes her future daughter-in-law, the now-adult Callie:

"Her crotch is always showing. She always wears short skirts, and I swear every time I look there's this view." Eileen shakes her head at herself, because even though it's true it's not at all what she means.

I loved the conspiratorial satisfaction I got reading this—of course, I knew what Eileen was trying to say, already having gotten to know Callie through Rhea's eyes. As Eileen prepares for her son's upcoming wedding, she reflects on her relationship with his father, whom she met at a kibbutz.

I'm not precious about marriage, but this story comes as close as I've ever seen to evoking its allure. For a while, every time I was invited to a wedding—even when I got married myself—I tried to find a section to letterpress print as a gift or to read aloud during the ceremony. But there is no perfect quote to pull; the meaning of the story is too active, woven through every sentence and choice. Like the best short stories, "Anniversary" is irreducible.

Its irreducibility hasn't stopped me from dismantling and analyzing it, though. At the end of "Anniversary," Eileen is lying in bed with her hands clasped, a gesture that has accrued so much meaning by that time that even now, despite having read the story nearly to the point of memorization, I have to hold my own hands over my stomach thinking about it, the feeling that twists there is so intense. What really compounds the emotion is that, a few paragraphs earlier, Kalotay lets slip a small secret the book had been keeping, a revelation that alters not only the story but the collection as a whole. Unlike the accumulating details about Callie, which deepen and enrich the book, this moment truly transforms it. I think I can say without ruining the experience for those who haven't read it yet that Kalotay accomplishes this with only one word: honeymoon. "Anniversary" functions as a world unto itself, but also a lens for the collection as a whole, sharpening and bringing into focus what came before and distorting what is still to come.

When I first read Calamity, I hadn't started to write a collection of linked stories yet. But that effect, the way that one word— honeymoon—cast back over the stories I'd already read, changing them in retrospect, became something I chased. I wrote a linked collection filled with details like an early conversation misremembered a hundred pages later, a song played in one story and heard in another, a character's recurring ache whose origin—a dramatic fall during an escape from a locked bar—is shown only in the manuscript's last pages. After working on it for years, I sent it to a contest and discovered, as it disappeared into the mailbox, that what I'd been feeling in my stomach when I reread it one last time before printing it was not that clasped hands, honeymoon feeling, but disappointment. I'd made the book too neat and tried too hard; I'd written the honeymoon right out of it. I hoped it would lose the contest and it did.

Soon after I first read Calamity, an email arrived in my inbox from my college's alumni association, announcing an event with Daphne Kalotay, class of '92. I hadn't known we had this connection. At the bookstore, Kalotay read the story "Serenade." I bought a copy of the book and, as she signed it for me, I told her that while I thought "Serenade" was beautiful, I really loved "Anniversary." She paused, pen in hand, and looked up at me. "That story is my favorite, too," she said, adding something like, "But it's so quiet. I'm not supposed to read it out anymore."

Last year, I finally published a collection of linked short stories. That spring, I read from it at my hometown library. The audience was populated by my immediate family members, a handful of old friends, a few of their mothers and one high school freshman, an aspiring writer, who came up to me after and, clutching a book from the small stash I brought to sell, asked, "Did you really grow up here?"

Recently, I discovered that, despite organizing that reading for me, the library does not stock my book. I just did a search and it turns out they don't have Calamity on the shelves, either. I may not remember correctly where I came across my first copy of Calamity, but I hope that teenager remembers where she got her copy of Speed Dreaming. It was in Montvale, New Jersey, a place where writers really can grow up.

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