Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

 

About Nicola GoldbergShort Story Contest

"Bliss," Nicola Goldberg's prize-winning story, opens with a quote from Lily Tomlin: "If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?" The story recounts a conversation between a stand-in bridesmaid and a groom who is to be married in two hours.

"It's about love in less traditional forms -- how people expect it to be the answer to everything when its not," said Goldberg, a 15-year-old sophomore at Castilleja School. "The Lily Tomlin quote just shows that it's something too complex for anyone to really understand it. It helped me say what I wanted to say with the story."

The idea for "Bliss" came to Goldberg one day as she was flipping through a society magazine and stumbled upon photos of an extravagant wedding.
"It's one of those magazines we don't subscribe to but gets sent to our house anyway," she said. "To me the pictures looked so fake. They looked like they were an advertisement rather than actual photos from a wedding.

"It got me thinking about marriage and weddings, and the story just went from there.

Goldberg, a Portola Valley resident who loves to write poetry and fiction, takes her material from wherever she can find it. In a cafe with her mother one day, she noticed a nearby couple and started imagining their conversation. The resulting short story, "Ellen and Rob," profiling the deterioration of a high-school relationship, was published in, Mochuelo, Castilleja's literary magazine.

As a seventh grader, Goldberg won an award in the poetry category of the Scholastic Arts and Writing competition. "My parents are very into poetry and I've read it from a very young age," she said. "It's more cathartic for me than writing fiction <0x2014> it's very personal." This is the first time she has entered a short-story contest.
Goldberg once read that Raymond Chandler edits his own stories about 60 times, and she believes in editing, too. She reworked "Bliss" about 40 times.

"I read it over and over and change words and change characters and change the order in which things happen until it makes sense and it's something I'm happy with," she said. "I ended up changing the names a lot. For me, the names really create an image of the character."

Visiting New York about a month after she first wrote "Bliss," Goldberg happened to notice a woman who precisely resembled Cecilia Evans, the bride-to-be in the story. She resisted any impulse to stop and try to speak to her.

"She was not very tall, blonde, with very delicate features. She looked to me just like I imagined the character of Cecelia. It was just kind of cool."

-Chris Kenrick

 

BLISS
by Nicola Goldberg

If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?
-- Lily Tomlin


The vast majority of the guests at the wedding of Cecilia Evans and Anthony Williamson are young, wealthy and semi-famous. As a slightly awkward fifteen-year-old I stand out, or at least I would, should anyone actually notice I am there at all. I am, also probably the only person who doesn't want to be there.
My mother is a gossip columnist. This means that the focus of her career is going to parties in order tell people who weren't invited what happened.

Cecilia Evans is what my mother calls a "Party Friend." They know each other well enough from balls and benefits to ask favors of one another, and since Cecilia's college roommate dropped out of the wedding at the last minute, she asked my mother to lend me as a bridesmaid.

During the rehearsal dinner, as my mother chats up guests in search of rumors and witty tidbits to stuff into her column, I eat hors d'oeuvres. I am aware that the hors d'oeuvres at events like these are not actually supposed to be eaten, but I didn't eat lunch today, and am starving. I glance over at my mother, who, in return, gives me a subtle death glare. She is clearly conflicted between storming over and scolding me and pretending she doesn't know me. Tired of the party, I retreat to the room my mother and I are sharing.

The wedding is being held at the pretentiously picturesque Waverly Hotel, which excites my mother tremendously. She originally planned to be an investigative journalist, covering conspiracies and rebellions. Now she covers balls. If she's upset about it, she doesn't let on. I don't think she is, really. She gets to go to beautiful parties, wear beautiful clothes, meet beautiful people, and all she has to do is write about it afterwards.

My mother likes to joke about the people she writes about. "It's not that they're all shallow, over-privileged narcissists. Some are. But many of them are very intelligent, philanthropic people who just happen to have a lot of money. However, no one cares about that. They want to know who slept where and what they wore."

I think, though, that she secretly wants to be one of them.

After their divorce, my dad moved to Brooklyn and my mom moved to the Upper East Side to keep a close eye on the rich and famous. Her career took off, Dad's, not so much. He's still trying to run a publishing company out of our living room and teaching classes at a local college. I live with him, mostly, because my school is in Brooklyn and he spends less time at parties than my mother does.
I see her often enough, though. We meet up in the city, and go for lunch. She talks to me about her job, and I pretend to listen. I talk to her about school, and she pretends to listen. Enlisting me for the wedding crossed some invisible line, though. I don't mind hearing or reading about my mother's new world, but I don't really want to be a part of it.

But I didn't have a good excuse not to be a bridesmaid, or time to make one up, so my mother dragged me to various salons before exposing me to the Hamptons. Apparently there were a lot of things that needed "fixing." My hair was too long, my cuticles were mess, my skin needed exfoliation (whatever that means).

"Isn't this fun?" My mother asked me repeatedly as we traipsed from one appointment to another. No, it was not. It was painful. 

There were clothes, too. My thrift-store jeans and colorful sweatshirts were all wrong. She bought me a navy blue silk dress for the rehearsal dinner; butter soft sweaters in pastel colors and pumps that made my legs look long and thin. I felt guilty taking them. She called them gifts, but to me they felt like costumes for a part I didn't want to play.

Back in the room, I sit down, bored, on my bed. There's not much fun to be had in a dress like this. There's nothing good on TV, and the paperback romance my mother is reading looks too idiotic to even pick up.

Irritable and restless, I wander outside, to the garden. It's pretty, even in the dark, and if I didn't feel so ineffably lonely, I would probably enjoy it.

"Mind if I sit here?"

I look up, startled at a young man, maybe in his twenties, looking down at me. Though I am not in the habit of consorting with random men in tuxes at nine o'clock in the evening, I don't want to be rude, and this is the Hamptons. What's really going to happen? I sigh quietly and scoot over a bit.

"What are you doing at the Waverly?" he asks.

I scowl. Is it really so obvious that I don't belong?

"The Williamson-Evans wedding. I'm a bridesmaid," I explain politely.

"Oh, sorry, then I should probably know you then."

"Why?"

"Anthony Williamson," he says awkwardly, sticking his hand out for me to shake it.

"Seriously?"

"Yeah."

I raise an eyebrow.

"Congratulations."

He says, "thanks," with the exasperation of someone who has been saying it a lot.

"Are you excited?"

"Why wouldn't I be? I'm getting married tomorrow."

"It seems like an appropriate question to ask."

"I guess so." He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one without offering. I am only vaguely offended.

"You're smoking?"

"Wow, you're observant." I can't tell whether his sarcasm is friendly or not. I don't think it is.

"It wasn't an observation, it was a question. Guys like you don't usually smoke."

"Guys like me?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Guys like you... who marry girls like Cecelia Evans."

He laughs sadly. "Fair enough."

There is a silence.

'What's your name?" he says finally.

"Alice Littleton."

"You know Nora Littleton?"

"She's my mom."

"Oh, right. I think Cecelia mentioned something about you."

The use of her name surprises me. I expected him to call her "Cece" or "Lee" or some other sort of pet name. "Cecelia" seems so formal.

"Shouldn't you be getting ready?" he asks me.

"My appointment is in half an hour. What's your excuse?"

"I'm... procrastinating," he says, grinning.

"You're procrastinating getting married? Cold feet?"

"No."

"OK, so what?" I smirk.

"I'm procrastinating everything else. I don't want to go in there and talk to everyone who will be making bad jokes and offering fake congratulations and telling me what a lucky guy I am."

"Goes with the territory, doesn't it?"

"That's why I wanted to elope."

He glances around, suddenly nervous, as if he is worried I will feed this particular tidbit to my mother. I nearly smile.

"Why am I telling you this?" he asks.

"I don't know"

"You won't tell your mother?"

"I don't really talk to my mother."

"Oh." I feel bad for telling him something he can't respond politely to. It must be hard for him.

"I, personally, think marriage is an archaic institution," I say wryly, just to have something to say.

"Is that so?"

I shrug.

"Well, yeah. I mean, I don't really know. I guess I just don't like the idea of belonging to someone else."

"Are you sure you're Nora Littleton's daughter?"

I laugh.

"I think that my mother's really into this whole happily-ever-after thing."

"And you aren't?"

"Not, not really. I mean... I like it, I just don't believe in it. "

"Me neither."

I raise an eyebrow.

"And yet, here you are, at the 'Wedding of the Century'."

"I told you, I wanted to elope. It's funny. They're calling this the 'Wedding of the Century'. If we get divorced, will it be the 'Divorce of the Century'?"

"You're extremely cynical for a groom-to-be."

"I'm just trying to be realistic."

"Do you love her?" I ask, realizing the moment I say it what an awkward question that is to ask anyone, especially someone you've never met before.

"Yes. I'm marrying her, aren't I?"

"That doesn't mean much. People marry people that they don't love all the time."

"True," he replies.

"Do you love her?" I ask again, feeling oddly brave.

"Yes."

"Are you in love with her? In an all-consuming, all-wonderful way?"

"Now who's being cynical?"

"I'm simply curious. Are you?"

"No."

I am surprised. Not by the answer itself -- It's sort of what I thought --by the fact that he doesn't lie.

"OK, then..."

"In true love, there have to be obstacles. Like warring families or something. Me and Cecelia, our only obstacle was picking out tablecloths." I must look confused because he continues bitterly, ""It's not that Cecelia isn't great, she is. It's not that she's not the love of my life, she is. It's that there are no other contenders. My life is boring, her life is boring, it'll always be that way."

I consider that for a moment.

"Isn't boring better than difficult?"

"No, it isn't. When something is difficult, it can be fixed. When something is boring, you just want to kill yourself." He doesn't look at me when he says this, only angrily puts out his cigarette on the wrought-iron arm of the bench.

"But if you fix something that's difficult, doesn't it become boring?"

"Catch-22," he replies darkly.

"So what happens now?" I ask, because I can't imagine someone who's told someone else he's miserable and will be even more miserable if he gets married will honestly go through it.

"We get married. We go on our honeymoon. We come home. We have kids. They go to school. They grow up. They get married. They go on their honeymoon. They come home."

"Allright, then."

"You see what I mean, the monotony of things?"

I nod.

"Tomorrow night I'll take the train home. And I'll go to school. And then I'll come home and do homework. And then I'll go to bed. And then I'll wake up. And I'll go to school. And then I'll come home and do homework. And then I'll go to bed."

He laughs hollowly.

"I see. Do you have a boyfriend?"

I shake my head. There have been guys in the past year, but none of them even important enough to warrant mention to either of my parents.

"Nothing serious."

"That's too bad."

"Why? I don't want or need one."

"Everyone needs someone who cares about them."

"People care about me. My parents, my friends..."

"That's different."

He is quiet for a moment, his face sad and pensive.

"I want to matter," he says suddenly. "I don't care so much about the money or the fame, I just want someone to really care what I do."

 "Well, Cecelia cares, doesn't she?"

"She cares that I'm kind and make her laugh and that I buy her presents and show up for dinner parties."

"That doesn't sound very romantic."

"Maybe not, but it works for us. The prince and the princess live happily ever after in a nice Brownstone."

"That's either very romantic and sweet...or just completely depressing."

"Maybe both."

"Yeah, maybe."

He sighs deeply.

"Cecelia and I barely know each other. I don't know what her favorite food is. She doesn't know what my favorite color is. Those are thing you should know about a person you are marrying, don't you think?"

"So why are you even marrying her?" I ask, somewhat exasperated.

"Because some stories shouldn't be rewritten," he says, not meeting my eyes.

"Why not? Look, you could call it off. I mean, it would be pretty awkward but you'd deal with it."

He doesn't answer, but checks his watch and looks at me seriously. He's a coward, I realize. He'll be miserable his whole life because he isn't brave enough to change it.

"I have to go."

"Go be polite and charming and all that?"

"Yeah," he smiles sadly. "That's sort of what I'm best at."

He gets up and sticks out his hand. I shake it, even though the gesture seems a bit weird to me after we've just had a conversation like that. He starts to leave.

 I feel the urge to grab his hand, to tell him to wait, this is a mistake, he shouldn't marry her. But it is not my place to save him, or even to try.
As I walk back into the hotel, I see Anthony in the distance, talking with another man in a tuxedo. In two hours Anthony will marry Cecelia. In twenty-four hours they will be on a flight to Corsica. In thirty-six hours the New York Times will let everyone in America know how beautiful the bride was and how proud the groom was. No one but me will know that he isn't in love with her.

How strange and tragic that we know the least about the people we care the most about.

My mother doesn't know that I'm allergic to strawberries. She doesn't know that I'm still scared of the dark, that I really like classical music, and that I had my first kiss last Christmas, the only one where she forgot to call. And there are multitudes of things I don't know about her, so many questions I will never ask. We are both existing in separate universes, barely even seeing each other.

I find my mother later in our room. The run-through is in fifteen minutes, but I find that I suddenly need an Advil from my suitcase. She is in the bathroom, putting on lipstick, her mouth a perfect, red O. "Hey, mom."

She doesn't reply.

I glimpse my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and am startled by how much I look like my mother tonight.

Before I leave, I stand next to her, my cheek touching her shoulder. Look at me, I think. See me.

She gives me a quick hug, which surprises me. My mother is usually a strictly hands-off parent.

"You look beautiful, Alice."

I pause before saying, "I look like you."

"Sort of," she replies, brushing a lock of my hair behind my ear.

"My favorite color is turquoise," I tell her.

Her face is puzzled but unusually friendly. "Mine is lilac."

I take her hand. It's not everything, but it's a start.

 


Judge's comment

This story is written with grace and intelligence. The dialogue and the glimpse of the world of these characters particularly impressed me with its maturity and insight.


- Ellen Sussman