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An anecdote

“Anyone can tell a cool anecdote though.”

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September 15, 2023

Two writers walk into a bar. Late afternoon. New York. Lower East Side.

“You won’t believe what just happened to me on my way here,” says the short one.

He was just walking to the subway to get to the bar when he ran into a girl he dated for a little while a few years ago, broody with dark curly hair and thick-framed glasses. “But get this, her name is Vivian Winters and we dated in the winter.”

The tall one looks at him confused. “But it’s October. It’s not winter yet.”

“No, that's not the trippy part. The trippy part was that we ran into each other under the awning of the Winter Garden Theater.”

“Woah.”

“I know, right? But that’s not the really trippy part. The really trippy part was when I got off the subway.” He was a few blocks away from the bar when he ran into another girl he dated for a couple of months.

“Let me guess. Her name was Autumn and you dated in the fall?”

“Close. Her name was April and we dated in the spring. And we ran into each other in the middle of the block on Spring Street.”

“Dude, that could totally be a story.”

The two men order beers and proceed to brainstorm how they could turn what just happened into a story. “Something about the passage of time,” the tall one offered, “or the shifts in energy with the change in the season.”

“Maybe it’s too pat to have the Winter girl be the broody one though,” the short one said. “Maybe she’ll be optimistic.”

“And April can be the dark one, sure,” the tall one said. “Are you worried about having dated a girl named April and putting a girl named April into one of your stories?”

The short one ponders. “That’s a good point. We did say we were going to meet up again. Maybe I’ll call the girl in my story May.”

“Or you can call her June and meet her in Summer Street.”

“Oh yeah, I can set the story in Boston instead of New York.”

“Yes,” the tall one says. “Driving all the way to Boston instead of just taking the subway would make it an even weirder coincidence. But maybe you shouldn’t use Vivian Winters either?”

The short one thinks about this. “Well okay. Maybe I should use the name Autumn for someone I dated in the fall. But where do I run into her then?”

“Remember in grad school there was a bookstore called Autumn Leaves?”

The two of them had gone to writing school together at Cornell, and there was indeed a used bookstore in the outdoor Commons there called Autumn Leaves. Setting the story in Ithaca gives the idea more texture, especially when the guy and the girl encounter each other at an outdoor mall in one of the coldest places in the country. The guy becomes a lonely graduate student in his first year at Cornell who runs into this girl Autumn at Autumn Leaves Bookstore a few weeks after the October when she broke his heart. This makes him realize that he could never go to the bookstore anymore, since it’s a small town and they both love books, so the chances of him running into her are too high.

“Isn’t naming her Autumn too... on the nose though?” the tall one asks. “What if her name is September?”

“Okay that’s good. Then the bookstore encounter gives him the motivation to go take a long weekend trip to Boston,” the tall one says, the beer in his hand almost sloshing with his expansive gesture.

“Right,” the short one replies. “He craves being a stranger in a city and he’s never been to Boston so he decides to drive there for a long weekend.”

“Right. But what’s his name?”

“It has to be something that implies time, right? Something like ‘forever’?”

The two of them get on their phones and look up baby names. Amar means “immortal” but they decide against it because it would have to be a character from a part of the world the short one knows nothing about, and he just wants to write a story about an everyman with romantic longings. After a while, the tall one looks up and says, “I got it. ‘Dante’ means ‘enduring.’”

“And Dante can be white, right?” the short one asks.

“Sure. His mom’s a classics buff.”

So their main character is now named Dante, and he’s a short, twentysomething first-year grad student at Cornell whose mom’s a professor.

“What field is Dante in though?” the tall one asks.

“Would climatology be too much?”

“If you need to ask then it probably is.”

“Okay.” The short one thinks some more. “Maybe ornithology?”

“Right. Yes. Of course. Birds migrate in the winter so you’re representing seasons without being too on-the-nose. I like it.”

So it’s November and Dante the ornithology grad student runs into September, the girl who dumped him in October, as he’s walking in and she’s leaving Autumn Leaves Bookstore. There’s a scene of them doing smalltalk, except everything she says launches Dante into some dramatic interior monologue about how their relationship was only destined for the fall.

“The fall!” the short one exclaims as he types notes on his phone.

They decide to set September and Dante’s breakup at the bottom of Ithaca Falls. On the surface it’s just the waterfall named for the town but dig deeper and it emphasizes that the thwarted love story is rooted in place as well as season, which connects to the theme of Dante being propelled to go elsewhere. Also Ithaca is suggestive of taking a journey only to return with a new perspective.

The short one frowns. “Is it a mixed metaphor or something that we’re talking about Ithaca and the character’s name is Dante?”

“Oh you mean like mixing The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno?” The tall one ponders a moment. “I dunno. I think people will just be impressed you’re making classical references.”

The short one nods. Dante and September have their encounter, and Dante remembers their breakup on one crisp October day after a hike near Ithaca Falls. He realizes he can’t go to Autumn Leaves anymore, which gives him all this desire and impetus to leave town and go to an unfamiliar city, in this case Boston. While in Boston, he randomly parks on Summer Street by the wharf and starts walking when he runs into June, a girl he dated and broke up with in his Midwestern hometown the previous summer.

“What are the chances?” Dante asks June. He didn’t even know she was in Boston.

“Yeah, I took a job here in September,” she says. She doesn’t even know that Dante had just earlier that day ran into September, the girl he dated last fall, in Autumn Leaves.

It’s November and getting chilly so Dante invites June to come into a cafe to warm up.

“Wait wait wait,” the tall one says.

“What? Is the cafe too meet-cute? I thought it would subvert the meet-cute narrative since they’ve already met.”

“No, the cafe scene just reminded me there’s that movie that has Summer in the title. What’s it called?”

“Shit. 500 Days of Summer.”

Both of them look up the movie on their phones.

“Fuck,” the short one says. “It’s the exact same idea. A girl named Summer and they use her name as a pun on the season. Fuck fuck fuck.”

The tall one thinks for a moment. “Yeah, you’re right. I think you need to go back to spring, buddy.”

The short one tilts his head. “Okay okay. New York is more scenic anyway.”

So the girl’s name is May, and Dante drives to New York City.

The short one puts down his beer so he can gesture with both hands. “Maybe he wanted May to be a summer fling but he discovered he had feelings for her and suddenly got cold feet about going to Cornell.” He’s getting more into it now. “But then the idea of giving up all his dreams for a girl scared him too, so that’s when he ran off to school after telling May he was staying. And maybe it’s in that state that he meets September, and as their relationship deepens, she realizes that she’s falling for him—“

“—hah, falling for him—“

“—but she knows he’s still heartbroken over May so even though he might fall in love with her someday, that couldn’t happen now. So she decides to let him go hoping they’ll get together someday when he’s ready, which is why that meeting at Autumn Leaves is so consequential, because they both still have feelings but he needs to recover from May.”

“Yes!” the tall one exclaims. “May takes a job in New York because she wants to be closer to Dante, but not in Ithaca because she hates him for telling her he’s staying and bailing at the last minute, but she also still loves him. But he doesn’t know that. Then when he randomly sees May on Spring Street, he has to decide whether they can still salvage their relationship or if it would be better to heal and one day be with  September. And the autumn-slash-spring thing is a metaphor for the subtlety of shifts in feeling, that there are these large patterns but also small peaks and valleys all the time with emotions in a relationship. Now that is a story.”

The two men clink glasses and only then do they notice that a pretty woman is standing in front of them, not Hollywood pretty but pretty in a complicated way.

“I have a question for you,” the woman says.

“Which one?” the tall one asks.

“Whoever met the girls with seasons for names.” 

The tall one nods to the short one, who nods to the woman as a sign to go on. 

“I don’t know if you realize but you’ve been talking pretty loud, and I’m sitting with some friends in this booth right here.” She motions to the tall back of a booth that is indeed next to the bar, though the men didn’t notice until the woman pointed it out. “I got bored and started listening in, and there’s something I don’t understand. You keep talking about something being a story, but isn’t the whole thing about meeting two girls you dated in one day, one named Winter by the Winter Garden and one named April on Spring Street, and you dated them in winter and spring. Wasn’t that already a story?”

The two men look at each other. The tall one says to the short one, “Go for it.”

“No, the story I told wasn’t a story. It was an anecdote.”

“But you just called it a story,” the woman says.

“I did?”

“Yeah, you said, ‘The story I told wasn’t a story.’”

The tall one intervenes. “He means that the story he told was a story in a casual sense, but not a story in a writerly sense. In a writerly sense it’s just an anecdote.”

“And an anecdote is not as good as a story?”

Both men shake their heads.

“Why not?”

The tall one thinks for a moment. “Because an anecdote is just something funny that happens to you that you tell your friend at the bar. Now a story, a story is something profound you can publish in the New Yorker.”

“But I liked the first story,” the pretty woman says, “or I guess the anecdote, if that’s what you want to call it. Why can’t that be the story?”

“It has no depth,” the short one says.

“Depth?” asks the pretty woman.

“Yeah it’s just a series of coincidences that wouldn’t even be believable if you tried to publish it as fiction.” He goes on to say that coincidences happen in life but they’re not believable in fiction because it always sounds like the writer just made them up even if they’re true, so they have to tie to larger themes so the reader would find them worthwhile.

“But that’s what I don’t like about the ‘story,’” the woman says, using scare quotes when she says “story.” “I like the anecdote because it doesn’t try to present itself as anything other than something cool that happened.”

“Anyone can tell a cool anecdote though,” the tall one says.

“And that’s bad?”

“Well, yeah. If everyone was like you and just wanted cool anecdotes then there wouldn’t be professional writers.”

The woman thinks about this. “So is the only reason these ‘stories’ exist is to justify the need for professional writers?”

 “What’s your job?” the short one asks.

“Oh, I’m a junior architect.”

“How would you feel if someone tells you the only reason ‘buildings’ exist is to justify the need for architects?”

The woman tilts her head. “I’d feel bad, I suppose, but that doesn’t make the question any less valid, whether it’s about stories or buildings. Sometimes, I feel like we humans make work for ourselves just to stay busy, that human existence is essentially mental masturbation.”

Another awkward silence. The two men eye each other.

“To masturbation,” the short one says, and raises his glass. They clink, and everyone is momentarily appeased.

“You ready Destiny?” another woman who is pretty in a complicated way says.

The woman named Destiny turns to the men. “Please just promise me you’ll think about the possibility that the anecdote is better than the story.”

The men nod. The woman named Destiny turns away. She hasn’t exited the bar yet when the men mouth “Destiny” at each other. The short one starts typing on his phone, while the tall one whispers in his ear.

This is the end mark. You have reached the end!

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