An Encyclopedia of Little Abominations

Emily Carter's flirtation with drugs led her from Park Avenue to a bad marriage with the festering streets of New York's Alphabet City. Now, in a collection of stories, Carter recalls the ABCs of addiction--and spells out the terms of a new life in Minnea

Speaking from the family summer home in Amagansett, Long Island, Anne Roiphe is prickly in maintaining that the book is about artistry first and autobiography second. "Of course it is a book about addiction and of course it is a book about AIDS," she says. "It's a book about a lot of things. But it's not a work of nonfiction. It does exactly what fiction is supposed to do, which is to let us come into the experience more intimately than it does otherwise. That's why fiction is so wonderful."

One should not be surprised that Roiphe has nothing to say about Glory Bronski's mother--a liberal feminist who relies on a black maid to keep the house in order while she's off changing the world. Though Roiphe has certainly mined her own experiences in memoirs, it's another thing to have the spotlight of another confessional writer illuminate family dynamics that might more comfortably stay in the shadow.

 

Teddy Maki

This year marks the end of Carter's first decade in Minneapolis and so far the city has treated her well. Separated from her husband of five years, Carter has lived for the past two years with her boyfriend Johnny on the ground floor of a red-brick house in the presidential streets of northeast Minneapolis. She maneuvers her scarred Saab 900 to a parking spot before the building, another Marlboro dangling precariously from her lower lip, and casually warns me about her dog, a pit bull named Betty. "She's going to want to greet you, but don't worry," she says, then appears on my side and with a kick opens the door:

"Dogs only smell fear if you show it." She turns and strides toward the house, her tank top revealing a tattoo of a fish skeleton on her shoulder.

Carter "works nights" these days, meaning that she does most of her writing between the mid-afternoon and ten or eleven at night, sometimes later, depending on when Johnny works. During the day, she intermittently teaches a class at the Loft, and writes a column for the weekly Pulse, which together take care of her modest fiscal needs. At the door of the apartment, she hesitates at the lock, as if Johnny might be sleeping inside. She turns the key and Betty bounds forward, nails clattering for traction. Her spastic greeting brings out a stern mommy in Carter, and she demands Betty redeem herself with a litany of tricks--"Play dead, lie down, do your thing!"--the performance of which calms the beast down to a tail-thumping pant. With Betty curled up on the couch and out of menacing range, I look around and take in the detritus of her living room: random artwork, a shelf of books by Raymond Carver and Mary Gaitskill, a tattered madras throw on the couch. It all feels as if it's been retrieved from some deep sea bed; like Carter, they seem unused to direct sunlight. I hear the first hint of softness in Carter's voice. "Sorry it's so small," she says scanning the apartment. "But we do okay here, don't we?"

Carter offers me a Fresca, and we retire to the porch to two butterfly chairs. A volcanic eruption of cigarette butts--think Richard Dreyfuss's sculpture in Close Encounters of the Third Kind--clutters a silver ashtray. Carter lights up and puffs languidly as our talk drifts to Proust and Woolf and literary gossip. As she talks wistfully of "maybe someday getting a job at a community college in New England and just writing," a police cruiser roars down the wide street. Otherwise it's so quiet the cicada buzzing feels like a roar. While no retreat, her apartment feels self-consciously separate from the city's murmur, a fact both Carter and Johnny appreciate.

Johnny is also in recovery, Emily says, which she believes is important. "Maintaining my sobriety has always been the big challenge for me. Living with someone who has that same issue is a double-edged sword. I could not be with somebody who hadn't been where I've been. The idea that I am going to hook up with some lawyer is ludicrous because we would have nothing in common. They'd resent me for my lack of drive, and I'd resent them for their lack of pain."

At 4:00 p.m. Johnny bounds home and pumps my fist with a vigor typical of a high school wrestling coach. It's easy to understand why Carter brightens visibly in his presence. While there's the obvious--his wide smile and restless physical energy--Johnny also feels like Carter's empathic steward. He keeps a close watch on her, and when she grows more fidgety as the afternoon wears on, he carefully assesses her energy level. "What's the matter, honey, you trying to get rid of him?" he finally asks.

"No, no, I'm just really tired and I'm going to meet my friend at seven," Carter replies.

"Want to lay down? Let's go, it's okay."

Their conversation drops to conspiratorially low levels and soon Johnny ushers his partner indoors. Emily Carter needs a nap.

Carter's fatigue is the only visible symptom of her HIV--although she's not a walking poster for a health club. Her bones protrude at her jaw, shoulders, and hips as if her skin had been draped over as an afterthought. In addition to living in the recovery mecca of America, being in Minneapolis has been good for Carter's HIV treatment. When she tested positive, she was able to establish a regimen of treatment with the HIV clinic at Regions Hospital, run by Dr. Keith Henry. Today she takes Videx (Didanosine) and Zerit (Stavudine). Her viral load is undetectable and her CD4--or lymphocyte cell count--hovers safely above 200, the cut-off for designating AIDS.

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