Your story “Two Nurses, Smoking” traces the budding relationship between two nurses, a man and a woman. When did you start thinking about Marlon and Gracie? Did the smoking part of the title (and the story) ever give you any pause?
Just about every day I walk past the hospital near my house and see a few nurses smoking on the sidewalk, hiding out around the bushes, and Marlon and Gracie came from watching the way they huddle close to one other, enjoying the ritual. I noticed that smokers seemed to stand closer to each other, and I might’ve seen one who inspired Marlon. I did think about cutting the smoking scenes, and the word smoking in the title, but it seemed too integral a part of the story—the pleasure in the form of something that might kill, the closeness of bliss and loss in a hospital setting. Anyway, I’ve had huge struggles with a nicotine addiction myself, so I was sympathetic.
Gracie and Marlon meet up whenever she visits his hospital with “ ‘the kidney pounder,’ as she liked to call it.” It’s a lithotripsy machine, which uses sound waves to break up kidney stones. Were you ever surprised to find you were writing a story in which kidney stones play a supporting role?
I suffered from a kidney stone a few years ago. I was in the emergency room and the nurse came back with the results of the CAT scan. She pointed at it and said, “Get ready, you’re going to feel the most intense pain you’ve ever felt.” She was right about that—it was mind-blowing pain, but it arrived in waves and, when it was gone, I felt this incredible bliss. Then a friend of mine got one and he went through a horrible treatment.
Marlon and Gracie are strangers at the outset, getting to know each other as they discuss the news of a serial-killer nurse, yet there’s also a bond between them—“a secretive energy, a conspiracy”—that has its roots in their difficult childhoods. Was it challenging to capture that movement back and forth between small talk and deep understanding?
Small talk really isn’t small talk, at least not in fiction. Small talk is how characters reveal internal thinking patterns to one other—their processing of the world—as they get to know one other. Marlon and Gracie both had trauma in childhood, and that has given them a shared understanding, an unspoken language, a certain mutual loneliness. When I started writing the story, my working title was “A Happy Story.” I was thinking a little bit about Chekhov’s story “A Boring Story.”
Marlon is a veteran, who served in Fallujah. He’s scarred by his time in Iraq, both physically and mentally. Did you know from the outset he’d be a vet?
From the start I knew that Marlon was a vet, and that, naturally, he was going to twist his experiences in combat around his everyday life. Years ago, I had a student in a night class at a community college who was a Vietnam vet and was studying with the dream of becoming an emergency-room nurse. It made complete sense. He was going to bring everything he learned in battle into another kind of battle situation.
“Two Nurses, Smoking” is a love story, and it has a more uplifting conclusion than some of your stories. What it’s like to write about happiness?
I’ve written love stories—but usually love that had to go through some trial, a betrayal of some kind. From the start I felt this tenderness toward both Marlon and Gracie. Happiness and unhappiness are of course entwined; life is a helix of the two, and you can’t have one without the other—which is a cliché, of course, but also true.
The story is made up of short sections. Each has a title, which also forms the first word or phrase of the opening sentence. Why did you choose this structure for the story?
I didn’t set out to break it up, but I began to understand, later, when I was revising, that this was partly a story about poking around in memory, and the way we look back at relationships through time, and I liked the destabilization that happened when I fragmented the opening line. All I can really say is that it was the only way it worked. As soon as I began to do this, the story began to unfold on the page.
The coronavirus crisis has made us all vitally aware of the dedication of medical workers and the danger they face. This story isn’t set during the pandemic, but has the crisis changed the way you view the story and Gracie and Marlon?
The crisis has made us see the way caregiving and carefulness are closely related—the complexities of nursing, wearing P.P.E., taking care to protect. But nurses are constantly dealing with that, even when we’re not in a crisis. If they make a mistake, it can be deadly. Gracie and Marlon both have a dark survival humor about their work because they’re aware that lives are in their hands and they see, daily, things that most people don’t see, or don’t want to see.