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You Think It, I'll Say It, Page 1

Curtis Sittenfeld

  You Think It, I’ll Say It is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2018 by Curtis Sittenfeld

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  The following stories in this collection have been previously published, sometimes in a different form: “Gender Studies” and “The Prairie Wife” in The New Yorker and “Bad Latch” in The Washington Post Magazine. In addition, “A Regular Couple” was published as a Kindle Single in partnership with The Atlantic, and “Volunteers Are Shining Stars” was published in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit (New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2006)


  Names: Sittenfeld, Curtis, author.

  Title: You think it, I’ll say it: stories / Curtis Sittenfeld.

  Description: First edition. | New York: Random House, [2018]

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017020945 | ISBN 9780399592867 | ISBN 9780399592874 (ebook)

  Classification: LCC PS3619.I94 A6 2018 | DDC 813//.6—dc23 LC record available at​2017020945

  Ebook ISBN 9780399592874

  Book design by Elizabeth A. D. Eno, adapted for ebook

  Cover design: Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich





  Title Page


  Gender Studies

  The World Has Many Butterflies

  Vox Clamantis in Deserto

  Bad Latch

  Plausible Deniability

  A Regular Couple

  Off the Record

  The Prairie Wife

  Volunteers Are Shining Stars




  By Curtis Sittenfeld

  About the Author

  Gender Studies

  Nell and Henry always said that they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case—it’s August 2015—but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget. Bridget is twenty-three, moderately but not dramatically attractive (one of the few nonstereotypical aspects of the situation, Nell thinks, is Bridget’s lack of dramatic attractiveness), and Henry and Bridget had been dating for six months. They began having an affair last winter, when Henry and Nell were still together; then in April, Henry moved out of the house he and Nell own and into Bridget’s apartment. Nell and Henry had been a couple for eleven years.

  In the shuttle between the Kansas City airport and the hotel where Nell’s weekend meetings will occur—the shuttle is a van, and she is its only passenger—a radio host and a guest are discussing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. The driver catches Nell’s eye in the rearview mirror and says, “He’s not afraid to speak his mind, huh? You gotta give him that.”

  Nell makes a nonverbal sound to acknowledge that, in the most literal sense, she heard the comment.

  The driver says, “I never voted before, but, he makes it all the way, maybe I will. A tough businessman like that could go kick some butts in Washington.”

  There was a time, up to and including the recent past, when Nell would have said something calm but repudiating in response, something professorial, or at least intended as such. Perhaps: What is it about Trump’s business record that you find most persuasive? But now she thinks, You’re a moron. All she says is “Interesting,” then she looks out the window, at the humidly overcast sky and the prairies behind ranch-style wooden fencing. Though she lives in Wisconsin, not so many states away, she has never been to Kansas City, or even to Missouri.

  “I’m not a Republican,” the driver says. “But I’m not a Democrat, either, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t never catch me voting for Shrillary.” He shudders, or mock-shudders. “If I was Bill, I’d cheat on her, too.”

  The driver appears to be in his early twenties, fifteen or so years younger than Nell, with narrow shoulders on a tall frame over which he wears a shiny orange polo shirt; the van is also orange, and an orange ballpoint pen is set behind his right ear. He has nearly black hair that is combed back and looks wet, and the skin on his face is pale white and pockmarked. In the rearview mirror, he and Nell make eye contact again, and he says, “I’m not sexist.”

  Nell says nothing.

  “You married?” he asks.

  “No,” she says.


  “No,” she says again, then immediately regrets it—he gave her two chances, and she failed to take either.

  “Me, I’m divorced,” he says. “Never getting wrapped up in that again. But I’ve got a four-year-old, Lisette. Total daddy’s girl. You have kids?”

  “No.” This she has no desire to lie about.

  Will he scold her? He doesn’t. Instead, he asks, “You a lawyer?”

  She actually smiles. “You mean like Hillary? No. I’m a professor.”

  “A professor of what?”

  “English.” Now she is lying. She is a professor of gender and women’s studies, but outside academia it’s often easier not to get into it.

  She pulls her phone from the jacket she’s wearing because of how cold the air-conditioning is and says, in a brisk tone, “I need to send an email.” Instead, she checks to see how much longer it will take to get to the hotel—twenty-two minutes, apparently. The interruption works, and he doesn’t try to talk to her again until they’re downtown, off the highway. In the meantime, via Facebook, she accidentally discovers that Henry and Bridget, who got married two days ago in New Orleans (why New Orleans? Nell has no idea), had a late breakfast of beignets this morning and, as of an hour ago, were strolling around the French Quarter.

  “How long you in K.C.?” the driver asks as he stops the van beneath the hotel’s porte cochere. The driveway is busy with other cars coming and going and valets and bellhops sweating in maroon uniforms near automatic glass doors.

  “Until Sunday,” Nell says.

  “Business or pleasure?”

  It’s the midyear planning meeting for the governing board of the national association of which Nell is the most recent past president, all of which sounds so boring that she is perversely tempted to describe it to him. But she simply says, “Business.”

  “You have free time, you should check out our barbecue,” the guy says. “Best ribs in town are at Winslow’s. You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”

  She and Henry were both vegetarians when they met, which was in graduate school; he was getting a PhD in political science. Then, about five years ago, by coincidence, Henry went to a restaurant where Nell was having lunch with a friend. Nell was eating a BLT. Neither she nor Henry said anything until that night at home, when she asked, “Did you notice what was on my plate today?”

  “Actually,” Henry said, “I’ve been eating meat, too.”

  Nell was stunned. Not upset but truly shocked. She said, “Since when?”

  “A year?” Henry looked sheepish as he added, “It’s just so satisfying.”

  They laughed, and they started making steak for dinn
er, or sausage, although, because of the kind of people they were (insufferable people, Nell thinks now), it had to be grass-fed or free-range or organic. And not too frequent.

  All of which is to say that many times since she learned of Henry’s affair she has wondered not only if she should have known but even if she is at fault for not cheating on him. Was there an unspoken pact that she failed to discern? And, either way, hadn’t she been warned? An admiring twenty-three-year-old graduate student was, presumably, just so satisfying! Plus, Bridget and Henry had become involved at a time when Nell and Henry could go months without sex. They still got along well enough, but if they had ever felt passion or excitement—and truly, in retrospect, she can’t remember if they did—they didn’t anymore. Actually, what she remembers from their courtship is dinners at a not very good Mexican restaurant near campus, during which she could tell that he was trying to seem smart to her in exactly the way that she was trying to seem smart to him. Maybe for them that was passion? Simultaneously, she is furious at him—she feels the standard humiliation and betrayal—and she also feels an unexpected sympathy, which she has been careful not to express to him or to her friends. Their deliberately childless life, their cat, Converse (named not for the shoe but for the political scientist), their free-range beef and nights and weekends of reading and grading and high-quality television series—it was fine and a little horrible. She gets it.

  To the driver, she says, “I’m not a vegetarian.”

  He turns off the van’s engine. Although she paid online, in advance, for the ride, an engraved plastic sign above the rearview mirror reads, TIPS NOT REQUIRED BUT APPRECIATED. As he climbs out of the front seat to retrieve her suitcase from the rear of the van, she sees that all she has in her wallet is twenties. If it weren’t for his political commentary, she would give him one—her general stance is that if she can pay three hundred dollars for a pair of shoes or $11.99 a pound for Thai broccoli salad from the co-op, she can overtip hourly wage workers—but now she hesitates. She’ll ask for ten back, she decides.

  She joins the driver behind the van, just as a town car goes by. When she passes him a twenty, she observes him registering the denomination and possibly developing some parting fondness for her. Which means that she can’t bring herself to ask for ten back, so instead she says, “There’s no way Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

  She wonders if he’ll say something like “Fuck you, lady,” but he gives no such gratification. He says, seeming concerned, “Hey, I didn’t mean offense.” From a pocket in his pants he takes a white business card with an orange stripe and the shuttle logo on the front. He adds, “I’m not driving Sunday, but, you need anything while you’re here, just call me.” Then he kneels, takes the ballpoint pen from behind his ear, and uses her black-wheeled suitcase, which is upright on the ground between them, as a desk. He writes LUKE in capital letters and a ten-digit number underneath. (Years ago, Henry had tied a checked red-and-white ribbon, from a Christmas gift his mother had sent them, to the suitcase’s handle.) The driver holds the business card up to her.

  For what earthly reason would she call him? But the unsettling part is that, with him kneeling, it happens that his face is weirdly close to the zipper of her pants—he didn’t do this on purpose, she doesn’t think, but his face is maybe three inches away—so how could the idea of him performing oral sex on her not flit across her mind? In a clipped voice, she says, “Thanks for the ride.”

  * * *


  With CNN on in the background, Nell hangs her shirts and pants in the hotel room closet and carries her Dopp kit into the bathroom. The members of the governing board will meet in the lobby at six and take taxis to a restaurant a mile away. Nell is moving the things she won’t need at dinner out of her purse and setting them on top of the bureau—a water bottle, a manila folder containing the notes for a paper she’s in the revise-and-resubmit stage with—when she notices that her driver’s license isn’t in the front slot of her wallet, behind the clear plastic window. Did she not put it back after going through security in the Madison airport? She isn’t particularly worried until she has searched her entire purse twice, and then she is worried. She also doesn’t find the license in the pockets of her pants or her jacket, and it wouldn’t be in her suitcase. She pictures her license sitting by itself in one of those small, round gray containers at the end of the X-ray belt—the head shot from 2010, taken soon after she got reddish highlights, the numbers specifying her date of birth and height and weight and address. But she didn’t set it in any such container. She probably dropped it on the carpet while walking to her gate, or it fell out of her bag or her pocket on the plane.

  Can you board a plane in the United States, in 2015, without an ID? If you’re a white woman, no doubt your chances are higher than anyone else’s. According to the Internet, she should arrive at the airport early and plan to show other forms of ID, some of which she has (a work badge, a gym ID, a business card) and some of which she doesn’t (a utility bill, a check, a marriage license). She calls the airline, which feels like a futile kind of due diligence. The next call she makes is to the van driver—thank goodness for the twenty-dollar tip—who answers the phone by saying, in a professional tone, “This is Luke.”

  “This is the person who was your passenger to the Garden Center Hotel,” Nell says. “You dropped me off about forty-five minutes ago.”

  “Hey there.” Immediately, Luke sounds warmer.

  Trying to match his warmth, she says, “I might have left my driver’s license in your van. Can you check for me? My name is Eleanor Davies.”

  “I’m driving now, but I’ll look after this drop-off, no problem.”

  Impulsively, Nell says, “If you find it, I’ll pay you.” Should she specify an amount? Another twenty? Fifty?

  “Well, it’s here or it’s not,” Luke says. “I’ll call you back.”

  “I was sitting in the first row, behind you,” Nell says, and when Luke speaks again, he seems amused.

  He says, “Yeah, I remember.”

  * * *


  He hasn’t called by the time she has to go to dinner. She calls him again before leaving her room, but the call goes to voicemail. The dinner, attended by nine people, including Nell, is more fun than she expected—they spend a good chunk of it discussing a gender-studies department in California that’s imploding, plus they drink six bottles of wine—and the group decides to walk back to the hotel. In her room, Nell realizes that, forty-two minutes ago, she received a call from Luke, and then a text. “Hey call me,” the text reads.

  “You at the hotel now?” he says when she calls, and when she confirms that she is, he says, “My shift just ended, so I can be there in fifteen.”

  “Wow, thank you so much,” Nell says. “I really appreciate this.” He will text when he arrives, they agree, and she’ll go outside.

  Except that when she reaches the lobby, he’s standing inside it, near the glass doors. He’s not wearing the shiny orange polo shirt; he has on dark gray jeans and a black, hooded, sleeveless shirt. His biceps are stringily well-defined; also, the shirt makes her cringe. She has decided to give him forty dollars, which she’s folded in half and is holding out even before they speak. He waves away the money and says, “Buy me a drink and we’ll call it even.”

  “Buy you a drink?” she repeats. If she were sober, she’d definitely make an excuse.

  With his chin, Luke gestures across the lobby toward the hotel bar, from which come boisterous conversations and the notes of a live saxophone player. “One Jack and Coke,” he says. “You ask me, you’re getting a bargain.”

  * * *


  Having a drink in the hotel bar with Luke the Shuttle Driver is almost enjoyable, because it’s like an anthropological experience. Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the pers
on sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is. He’s twenty-seven, older than she guessed, born in Wichita, the second of two brothers. His parents split up before his second birthday; he’s met his father a handful of times and doesn’t like him. He’ll never disappear from his daughter’s life the way that his father disappeared from his. He and his mom and his brother moved to Kansas City when he was in fifth grade—her parents are from here—and he played baseball in junior high and high school and hoped for a scholarship to Truman State (a scout even came to one of his games), but senior year he tore his UCL. After that, he did a semester at UMKC, but the classes were boring and not worth the money. (“No offense,” he says, as if Nell, by virtue of being a professor, had a hand in running them.) He met his ex-wife, Shelley, in high school, but the funny thing is that he didn’t like her that much then, so he should have known. He thinks she just wanted a kid. They were married for two years, and now she’s dating someone else from their high school class, and Luke thinks better that guy than him. Luke and his buddy Tim want to start their own shuttle service, definitely in the next eighteen months; the manager of the one he’s working for now is a dick.

  Eliciting this information isn’t difficult. The one question he asks her is how many years she had to go to school to become a professor. She says, “How many after high school or how many total?”

  “After high school,” he says, and she says, “Nine.”

  Without consulting her, he orders them a second round, and after finishing it Nell is the drunkest she’s been since she was a bridesmaid in her friend Anna’s wedding, in 2003; she’s wall-shiftingly drunk. She says, “Okay, give me my license now.”

  Luke grins. “How ’bout I walk you to your room? Be a gentleman and all.”