NEA Literature Fellowships

Judith Frank

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(2008 - Prose)

From the novel-in-progress Noah's Ark  

They didn't have to wait long to be ushered into the office with the police; Matt learned later that except for Roy and an Arab dishwasher, all of the other sixteen victims had been identified by then, and that the remaining mourners in the hall were identifying the bodies of victims of a massive pile-up that had occurred the previous night, outside of Tel Aviv. He touched the social worker's sleeve.  "Should I go with them?" he asked.

Her look was kind, but doubtful. "The room is quite small," she said.

"Oh, okay then," he said, in a quick, anxious display of cooperation that he immediately regretted when the door closed behind them. 

He thought he could safely leave the room for a little while and be back by the time they emerged, so he wandered outside. He stepped out of the sun into the shadow of pine trees, gravel crunching beneath his shoes, grateful for air that didn't stink of mayhem. His dress pants were damp at the seat and thighs. An old man was sweeping pine needles off the paths that ran between the stuccoed buildings, a lit cigarette in his mouth, and Matt wondered if he dared ask him for one. He felt shy; he didn't know if this dark-skinned fellow was Jewish or Palestinian, and didn't in any case know either language. He slowly walked toward him, and when he met his eye, mimed smoking a cigarette, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. The old man rested the broom handle against his armpit and fished out a rumpled pack from his breast pocket, held it out to Matt, and Matt drew one out. With a leathery hand, the man gave him his own stub of a lit cigarette to light it with. Matt inhaled deeply and blew two thin streams from his nostrils.

"Thank you," he said, nodding, in this act of bumming a smoke, without social class or nationality, a man among men.

He strolled back to the building holding the cigarette in graceful fingers. He leaned against the stucco wall, closed his eyes and rested, and instantly his peace was shattered by the vision of Roy's body being torn apart, and he opened them again, found himself laboring to breathe. Inside, they were talking about every inch of Roy's body. Matt felt an overwhelming tenderness toward it that was compounded by the ease of imagining it to be Daniel's. Roy looked a lot like Daniel, but with the slight beefiness of the straight man. Matt and Daniel had been together for a year before Matt met him, and he'd refused to believe that Roy was straight. "Whatever," he'd drawl with a dismissive wave when Daniel insisted, and he quizzed him suspiciously. Had Roy gone to Israel to try to be straight? Did he think a macho culture would straighten him up? Was Daniel sure they were identical twins?  Then one summer Roy came to visit them in Northampton and brought his new girlfriend, Ilana, and Matt and Daniel took one look at the butch with the booming voice and bruising handshake and shot each other a surreptitiously merry look. 

Roy was all tah-dah! - he had a strong sense of entitlement, but mostly in a nice way. He was a child who had madly flourished under the praise he received when he brought home his accomplishments.  He acted as though he believed he was handsome, and that made him handsome, although in fact, Daniel was much more so. He was the best dancer Matt had ever seen in a straight man. He flirted with Matt, as though Daniel's gayness gave him a delicious permission; he was even a little inappropriate sometimes, maybe coming on too strong as the cool and gay-affirmative straight twin.  He pretended that he was dominated by his giant wife. 

Matt crushed the cigarette under his shoe, suddenly sickened by it, and went back inside. 

Raised in Evanston, IL and Jerusalem, Israel, Judith Frank holds a BA from the Hebrew University, and an MFA and PhD from Cornell University. She is the author of Crybaby Butch (2004), which was awarded the Astraea Foundation's Emerging Lesbian Writers Fund Prize in Fiction in 2000, and a Lambda Literary Award in 2005. She has been a resident at Yaddo, and has published short fiction in The Massachusetts Review, Other Voices, and Best Lesbian Love Stories 2005. She teaches English and creative writing at Amherst College. 

Photo by Elizabeth Garland

Author's Statement

A writer friend of mine once said that there's no way of getting it right, that balance between writing and making a living. She has organized her life around the writing, and works just enough to eke out a living, and she was feeling the stress of a dwindling bank account. I have obtained financial security in becoming a college professor, but was groaning over the soul-sucking paper grading, and the administrative work that filled my mind with bureaucratic information, which must be the very antithesis of creative energy. (I should mention that the core of my work - the sociable and stimulating conversations about literature I have with my students and colleagues - I adore.) 

The NEA comes at a time when, because of these other obligations, a novel I love languishes half-finished and nearly unremembered. The program officer who called not only brought me the great news, but also lingered on the phone to tell me the whole story of the progress of my writing sample through the various committees. She told me about the people who read it, and what they thought about it; she told the story with the kind of wonderful detail one can repeat only to one's partner or mother without being an irritating bore. I am grateful for this award, both for the gift of additional leave time from my job it will provide, and for the lovely support of the messenger, who reawakened my pride in being a writer.