Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Third Place

Advice

by Sara Kwasnick

About Sara Kwasnick

After reading Dear Abby and Ann Launders' advice columns one weekend, Sara Kwasnick started thinking about what it would be like to be a professional advice columnist.

"Originally, I thought it would be kind of fun to be an advice columnist," said the 14-year-old author. "She's not married and she doesn't have any children and it turned out to be sort of a sad life."

When Kwasnick sat down to pen her short story, "Advice," her rosy pictures of the job soon disappeared. As the advice columnist examines the lives and problems of her readers, she begins to wonder about her own life. When a reader writes in complaining of not being able to feel fulfilled in her life, the advice columnist is faced with her own loneliness and the challenge to fill it.

A student at Palo Alto High School, Kwasnick has been writing stories since she was in elementary school and soon developed a passion for writing.

"In third grade, I had a teacher who had us write things every day," she said. "I think it's really fun. It's really easy for me to do and I enjoy doing it."

Kwasnick is a former winner of the Palo Alto Weekly contest. Although she doesn't have any favorite writing topics, Kwasnick said there are a few subjects she does not like to write about.

"I don't write about fantasy," she said. "Usually the stories are realistic or inside jokes, but nothing like magic or fantasy."

In addition to writing fiction, Kwasnick plays basketball and the piano.

--Lia Steakley

Paula had started an advice column. It had taken years of being a junior reporter for the town newspaper, and then months and months of inventing the stories she answered. The ethics of that were a bit shaky, but after all, one had to start somewhere!

And after "priming the pump" in this way for nearly six months, she finally was generating her own fan base, receiving on average about fifty letters a day! Paula considered this to be a huge amount, though she knew that the bigger advice columnists were handling several thousand letters on any given day of the week. Of course, Paula's was not huge: her column was only in six newspapers, one of which was the free daily paper run by the town.

Paula had always wanted to be one of two things: A journalist, or a psychologist. She decided to combine the best of both worlds, and began dabbling out advice in the school paper through junior high and high school. After taking a break to pursue a proper course of study in college, and spending several years as a copy editor, Paula returned to her old dream and finally achieved minor (albeit anonymous) success at the age of thirty-eight.

Paula wrote under the pseudonym of "Ask Eva." Eva had been her grandmother's name, and Paula felt that she had inherited a great deal of natural wisdom from her. In addition, the words "Eva" and "Ask" had a nice sound to them, almost alliterative, but not quite.

Her "invented" letters mostly came from things she had heard about through the grapevine of friends and relatives. Paula changed the plots around slightly, of course. She wrote about people having affairs, and people who suspected their spouses were having affairs, and other topics of a similar kin. This was not because Paula liked to write about unfaithful people; she did it because she knew that nothing was more attractive to the public than stories about seemingly decent human beings who engaged in R-rated activities.

When she began receiving actual letters, Paula chose the most devious ones and printed them, along with her advice, in the paper. For the ones that didn't make the cut, she mailed responses to the return addresses. Paula received many letters regarding romance, and just as many regarding etiquette and bad relations with relatives. She answered them quite well; Paula had a gift for putting herself in other people's shoes while still maintaining an outsider's air of judgment.

Paula's favorite letter she had received was the first one she had ever opened. There was nothing particularly special about it, but the joy of finally solving somebody's problem and printing the proof of her work in the newspaper made this letter important to her.

"Dear Eva," it read, "I have become involved with a wonderful man. 'Harvey' and I spend many evenings at his apartment. Unfortunately, I am married, and to make matters even worse, Harvey is my husband's brother. I do love my husband, but now I want to be with Harvey, and he says he feels the same. What should I do?"

Paula wrote, "Cut off your relationship with Harvey! Even if you were to divorce your husband, Harvey's life would be ruined because his brother would hate him forever once the two of you had married. Tell your husband what has been going on, and then I recommend marriage counseling for the two of you. For both Harvey's sake and your own, end this now!"

Sometimes Paula wondered how so many people in the world could have such problems. She herself had always had a pleasant life. Though at times she longed for a husband and children, Paula knew that this would likely never happen. For one thing, when she wasn't in one of these strange phases of longing, she loved being single.

Though Paula went through the occasional boyfriend, and often dated, she overall wanted to live alone. Of course, she didn't think of it as "alone" - she thought of it as "free." Paula loved to visit foreign countries for vacation or take risks, like going skydiving, without having to worry about other people in a family.

When Paula was in one of her phases of longing, however, she thought of her younger sister, who was everything Paula was not: short, plump, blonde, and the mother of four children. Her house was always covered in diapers, soccer balls, T-shirts, and dog toys, while Paula's condo was open and airy, with matching colors and clean hallways.

While Paula's sister and her family spent their vacations either visiting relatives or going for short and hectic ski trips, Paula was always alighting to Paris just to enjoy the dining and shopping, or staying in a cozy bed and breakfast in the Swiss Alps over Christmas, or sunning herself on a beach in Baja. Paula could afford to do this both financially and mentally. Paula's sister and her husband saved all year for their vacations, just so that the entire family could go without it being a major strain on the budget, though the tax on their sanity was still severe.
One morning, Paula strolled down to the post office as always, and opened up the P.O. box in which she received her "Ask Eva" mail. There was a large stack of envelopes inside, which she pushed into the floppy wicker bag hanging from one arm. Paula then hiked back up the hill to her condo, taking in the flowers and trees lining the street, and the people rushing to get to work. She crossed the wide road to the brick staircase leading off the sidewalk that twisted up among the ivy and berry bushes to the top of the hill. It was a clear morning, and a cool breeze was rustling the bows of an oleander hedge. Paula breathed in the fresh air and smiled.

Paula loved being her own boss, and, though only her friends knew that she was "Ask Eva," she enjoyed thinking that the people driving by in their cars somehow recognized her walking up the brick staircase towards her condo and thought, "Hey, that's the lady who write the column in the paper. Man, it's got to be great having a job like that!" She looked back at the cars whizzing down the hill, but none of the drivers seemed to notice her. If anything, they probably assume I'm some woman who just finished walking her kids to the bus stop, Paula thought. She squinted into the distance for a moment, thinking about that, then turned around and continued up the hill.

In addition to loving being her own boss, Paula loved her condo. It had two floors, and the top floor had two bedrooms. From her room, Paula could see the ocean, far away across the city. Well, on clear days she could. Whenever there was fog, Paula could only see the city, and behind it a great bank of fog towering over the buildings that showed where the ocean lay.

The other upstairs bedroom was Paula's office. While it didn't have a balcony like the other one, this room did have a small window on the far wall that showed the city view. The walls were clean white, and the carpet was the color of red wine. Paula emptied the bag of letters onto her desk.

The light on the answering machine was blinking. Paula hit the play button and leaned back in her chair to listen. The machine beeped, and the message began to play:

"Hey Polly, it's Kate. Listen, I was wondering when you're going to be visiting mom and dad this summer at the lake, because I was thinking we could coordinate so the kids can see you and we could all - oh, hang on," she interjected. A dog was barking in the background and a baby had started crying. "Jeremy! Go take Rosy outside!" The baby was still crying. Kate groaned. "Sorry, I have to run," she said apologetically, "but just call me back when you get a chance so we can talk! Okay, so, talk to you then." The answering machine beeped again.

Paula was biting her lip in thought. The truth was, she wasn't planning on visiting her parents at their lake house that summer. She already had worked out the beginnings of a plan to visit Italy and then possibly Turkey, staying in small vacation towns on the Mediterranean and learning how to windsurf. Paula exhaled and decided to call her sister later. She turned back to the pile of mail.
The first letter Paula picked up out of the stack was heavier than the ones she usually received. When she opened it, Paula found the letter to be over a page long, written in a smooth, even handwriting on plain white paper. She began to read.

"Dear Eva," it began, "I have a huge problem. Please attempt to contain yourself from immediately offering me sympathy, though this will be your reaction. Here's the problem: I am forty years old this month, and I have everything anybody could ever want. To clarify, I have a great job, a beautiful house, good friends, and loving relatives. I am always being invited to parties and dinners, and I own a cabin up in the mountains for when I want to be alone. I can afford anything without worry; I could recreate myself on a whim, get a degree in anything, and start any career all over again. Are you feeling sorry for me yet? Let me make it even worse: I have no real family. Of course there are my relatives, numerous as they are. But what I really crave more than anything else is a family here at home. At this point, most of the people I date are not interested in long-term commitment, or if they are, they are no longer interested in having children. I try to enjoy the millions of good things I have in life, and I understand that most people would be delighted to live the way I do. But I would quit my job in an instant if it meant I could be a mother. I have thought about adopting, but I want a husband in addition to children. I have thought about getting a dog, as many of my friends say I should, but I do not want to leave it at home all day while I work, nor do I want to drag it around on my lavish vacations. If I could have one wish, it would be to restart my life after college and settle down to live in a traditional manner. But seeing as that is not possible, what should I do?"
Paula stared at the last sentence of the letter. The truth was, she didn't know. Go ahead and adopt? Find somebody to marry who will want children? Or just deal with the fact that you can never have everything you want? Paula didn't know. She felt tired suddenly, and longed to go across the hall to her bedroom and crawl under the covers. Instead, she re-read the letter slowly, word by word. She glanced at the clock and was surprised to find it to be only ten o'clock in the morning. What do I want? Paula thought.

She looked out the window at the speck-like boats sailing on the blue ocean beyond the city and at the eucalyptus trees swaying down on the hillside, all of it framed by lacy white curtains undulating slightly in the breeze. She glanced at the smattering of pictures tacked on her bulletin board: the many places she had visited, a group of her friends on a boat, and a hokey Christmas card from her sister, which featured the entire family, including the dog, wearing Santa Claus hats.

I don't know what I want, Paula admitted to herself. She knew she loved her life and the many wonderful opportunities it presented, but she felt that she was somehow missing out on something that she would eventually come to regret not having experienced. Paula re-read the letter a third time. She wondered what her sister was doing.

Some advice columnist you are, she thought to herself as she ran the letter through the paper shredder. Then Paula picked up the phone to call her sister and ask if she could go skiing with them that winter.