In Harold Brodkey's short story, "The State of Grace," that opens his exceptional debut collection from 1958, First Love and Other Sorrows, Brodkey, autobiographically speaking through his thirteen-year-old protagonist, recollects babysitting a seven year old boy. The boy was lonely, but unaware of his loneliness, as children that age can't help but be, and he'd light up each time Brodkey arrived at his house to keep an eye on him. Brodkey sensed the boy's subtle unhappiness over time, but being so unhappy himself, would not reciprocate the boy's adoration. Oh, he'd play with the boy -- perfunctorily -- keep him entertained and looked-after properly while his parents dined out and saw a movie or a play, but he would not give the boy what he knew the boy wanted from him -- his love. Brodkey, now the adult, as the story concludes, and he looks back, wonders why it was so hard for him -- as that thirteen year old babysitter -- to give the boy what he needed, when it was obvious to everyone in the neighborhood that the kid just needed a big brother to love and guide him since his own father was so distant, practically no more materialized as a real presence in the boy's life than a ghost's. Just like Brodkey's Papa -- a phantom father. All the kid needed was some affirmation and acceptance, Brodkey! Couldn't you at least have given the boy that?
Looking back further, Brodkey regrets his mistake of needlessly withholding warmth and praise from the boy, berating himself for the sins of his youth, wishing, dreaming that he could go back in time and love the boy like the big brother that boy so desperately needed, exhorting his younger self to make that connection somehow, even though time had long since crushed the possibility of connection, and left instead in its inexorable wake, regret, loss, and self-loathing, over the wasted opportunity.
It's a painful conclusion to a powerful story, dramatizing how the past, no matter how well remembered (and my does Brodkey remember!), can never be recaptured (my apologies, Proust) at least in terms of removing its stained accumulation of regrets, or recaptured to induce some magical reenactment of a different, wished-for outcome, no matter how earnestly one yearns or imagines themselves vociferously instructing their younger, long-disappeared, unreachable self.
Poignant evocation of regret and loss, Brodkey! Bravo, Sir! Perhaps too evocative?
When I was in middle school, there was this girl. In retrospect, she obviously liked me. At the time, though, being so gangly and awkward and nervous around anybody and not just the opposite sex -- so insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin and lonely and mostly friendless because of it -- I didn't know, having never experienced a girl's attention before, how to react to it. To what were friendly advances accented maybe with that mysterious feminine vibe of attraction (a glance, a touch of her hair, a certain smile of hers) that I instinctively intuited meant more than her just being friendly, especially considering her persistence, poor girl, day after day and week after week in the classroom and junior high hallways, approaching me with that irrepressible "vibe". That "vibe" that rattled and alarmed me and, frankly, scared the shit out of me. I was afraid of the girl and embarrassed by her attentiveness, made overly-anxious and self conscious by it, stupid hypersensitive boy that I was. And lacking the internal tools to appropriately reciprocate her advances, and meanwhile realizing that I lacked the know-how to respond to her anyway, and that she held such power in exposing my opposite-sex ineptitude just by approaching me, I began to secretly loathe her. Just as Brodkey began resenting the boy for his unspoken needs.
My solution to this girl who would not go away?: Avoid her. Ignore her. Shun her. But not overtly; I couldn't be that rude. I mean avoid her by looking right through her, never directly at her even though our eyes sometimes met. I could keep her distanced and disengaged this way, no matter how relentless she became. Went on all school year like that. The more I resisted, the more she persisted. At least persisted up to a point; her point being the last day of class. Kids performing the yearly June ritual passing around their school annuals for signing and sentimentalized memorials of "good lucks," "goodbyes" and "friends forever".
The girl took my annual. I took hers. I did my (by then) rote don't-engage-her routine one last time. There was nothing grandiose or sentimental in what she handed back to me, her last words in my yearbook annual: "I just wish we could've become friends".
Killed me. How it hurt, her honest words. And why shouldn't it have hurt? Wasn't I in dire need of some friends? Wasn't I lonely? Hadn't she been generously, beyond-patient with me, offering me a balm to loneliness and outsider'd-ness -- her friendship and maybe more -- all damn yearlong? Would it have been so exceedingly difficult for me to have just woken up -- "wake up, Freeque!" as Harold Brodkey exhorted his immature thirteen-year-old self to do regarding the boy he babysat -- and to (damn it!) befriend the poor girl, merely accept what she was offering? It's what she needed from me. It's what the neglected boy Brodkey babysat needed from him. It's what Brodkey himself needed and I needed too, and what none of us got.
Beware all who approach the First Love and Other Sorrows of Harold Brodkey's, lest his writing resurrect memories and regrets you'd might rather have remained dead.
Bookforum's Reassessment of Harold Brodkey's Literary Stature