Matthew Klam on the Weirdness of COVID

Your story “The Other Party” is set in a residential neighborhood in D.C., where everyone knows everyone and neighbors are truly neighborly. Were you drawing on your own community for this portrait? Is there actually a neighborhood in which everyone cares about everyone else?

People around here communicate and are so friendly and helpful. You can borrow oregano on short notice, or get someone to break into your house if you’re stuck in traffic and you left the oven on. I did draw upon my own experience for some of this, but it’s also relevant that this story takes place at the tail end of the shutdown, in mid-December, 2021, and the shift in social habits has brought these people closer together.

I’m not sure if there’s a neighborhood where everyone cares about everyone else, but where I live is zoned like the area in the story, so that from your kitchen window you can see into the kitchens of two or three houses twenty feet away, and it’s hard not to interact with people, and hard not to feel empathy and compassion in those bursts of connection.

At the beginning of the story, the daughter inadvertently bares her soul to her father, and her friends speak to her in an open, honest way that the father overhears. Neighbors address one another as if in midsentence—“Hey, can I tell you something terrible?” A little girl a few doors down calls out to the narrator as though they’d already been talking for hours. Neighbors reveal their inner selves with a single look. Friends share shock and sadness. In my real life, I need boundaries and solitude and privacy, but I also want to feel connected to everyone. I want to walk through the walls of people’s houses and into their lives, into their stories and secrets and struggles. I think it’s a fantasy of mine that we’re all confiding in one another, sharing the bad news, sharing the load.

But I’m also reminded as I see my neighbors come and go that there’s a distance between us, and it hurts to be unable to cross that distance. In reality, we can help one another only so much, and the rest of the time we stand by and watch, and it’s tragic.

“The Other Party” alternates between two perspectives: that of the narrator, a writer and stay-at-home father, and that of his fifteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, both of whom attend parties that are emotionally fraught. Did the story start out that way in your mind, or did the idea for the two strands emerge as you were writing?

The splitting of the story lines emerged out of frustration. The father wants to keep his daughter home, safe and warm on a Friday night, or drag her next door to what for her would be a boring potluck. But she goes off on her own, as she must, and there is some trouble.

The narrator’s friend and neighbor Terry has just found out that he has A.L.S., and the narrator has a complicated reaction—sympathy for his friend mixed with relief at not being sick himself. Rachel has a similar experience when her friend is sexually assaulted. She tells her father, “A bad thing happened to Lily, but nothing bad happened to me.” Was that parallel intentional? And what made you want to explore that secret, guilty form of relief?

I was weird before the pandemic, but the pandemic made me weirder. I spent time walking in the woods, and, at some point during the worst of it, I fell in love with trees and wished I were one of those perfect forms, stolidly standing by while all sorts of crazy shit happened to the humans. At times, I felt that I was a tree, because there was so much human suffering, an unimaginable amount of human loss, and I’d dodged all of it. I’ve since had COVID and retain some strange lingering effects, but at the time the guilt was overwhelming.

A.L.S. (a neuromuscular degenerative disorder made famous by Lou Gehrig) is in my family. I hate it so much that I’ve made rules throughout my life restricting me from even saying the name of it. I feel enormous guilt, and enormous relief, that it hasn’t come for me. I didn’t plan to write about it, and initially imagined the neighbor who falls as someone old and infirm. But, as I worked on the scene, the disease entered the story.

And, as the father of a teen-ager, I’m well aware of the potential dangers lurking out there, especially for girls. I think there’s a sense woven into the story that our existence is fragile and random, and that it’s a bold act to live confidently, refusing to acknowledge what might come, what will come. We feel guilt and relief at our good fortune. So, into the opening scene, with its little joys and glitches of domesticity and its swaggering assurance that we’re all entitled to a year-end celebration and a long life, came the absurdity of teen-age girls having their fresh, shattering experiences, and the serious and shocking affront of a fast-acting, incurable, one-hundred-per-cent-deadly disease.

You seem to have some fun, in the story, with the vocabulary and speech patterns of fifteen-year-olds. Did you have help with that?

Yes, and I do understand some of the lingo, though a lot of it is apparently classified.

Are you working on other stories set in this neighborhood? A novel?

Some writers I know love to talk about what they’re working on. I’m not sure what I’m working on, but if I did know I probably wouldn’t say. ♦

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