Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
by Sara Kwasnick
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.
I am married, and to make matters even worse, Harvey is my husband's brother.
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
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
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
Though Paula went through the occasional boyfriend, and often
dated, she overall wanted to live alone. Of course, she didn't
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
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.
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
I'm some woman who just finished walking her kids to the bus stop,
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
"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.
"Dear Eva," it began, "I have a huge problem. Please
attempt to contain yourself from immediately offering me sympathy,
this will be your reaction. Here's the problem: I am forty years old this month,
and I have
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
and I own a cabin up in the mountains for when I want to be alone.
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
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
understand that most people would be delighted to live the way I
would quit my
job in an instant if it meant I could be a mother. I have thought
adopting, but I want a husband in addition to children. I have thought
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
down to live in a traditional manner. But seeing as that is not
should I do?"
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
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.