31 Days of Stories, 2009: Day 21, “ContEd” by Rebecca Rosenblum

August 21, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Once.

blog324-081205074020Whenever I’m asked why I admire Rebecca Rosenblum’s writing so much, I point to the baklava moment in “ContEd.” Isobel, the story’s protagonist, works as a waitress at a Greek restaurant and is taking a continuing education night course in tax accounting. She has moved to Toronto from Montreal after breaking up with Riley, her long-term boyfriend. Eva and Mara, the owner and dinner-shift waitress at the restaurant, feel that Isobel needs a boyfriend, so they encourage her to ask her teacher, Barton Denby, on a date. To grease the wheels, Eva supplies Isobel with a box of mini-baklavas: “She says that desserts are slow, plus these are gonna go off before they sell, but sugar and nuts don’t spoil. Plus she winks.”

When Isobel presents Barton with the box of baklava after class, the embarrassing awkwardness of the moment is heightened by the fact that the box has got jarred in Isobel’s bag, and now “looks like something from the garbage.” Teacher and student exchange a few forced pleasantries, then part. “I don’t know where Barton is heading,” Isobel says, “but probably not in the same direction as me.”

There is more pathos in this one small incident than many writers are able to wring out of entire novels. Moreover, Isobel is the kind of character rarely seen in Canadian fiction: a young woman who works a tedious service job to make ends meet, fending off unwanted advances from customers at work, while spending a good portion of her meagre income to put herself through equally tedious night classes. “Eva begs me to work Thursday night,” Rosenblum writes. “I feel like I can’t say no. Besides, paying tuition has made me need the money more. I guess that’s ironic.” The economic catch-22 of many young Canadian urbanites, who want to better themselves if only they could find the financial means to do so, is something that Rosenblum clearly understands and empathizes with. In class during the final exam, Isobel looks around the room at the other students bent over their papers: “For a minute, I just watch heads, backs, arms, no faces. I wonder how everyone’s doing, how they feel. I wonder if their feet hurt.”

Isobel’s romantic dilemma is equally well drawn: the tentativeness and hesitancy with which she and Barton interact is almost palpable. There is a suggestion in the story that Isobel feels inadequate next to Barton, who went to law school before becoming a tax accountant. (“If you have to go to law school to be a real tax person,” Isobel thinks ruefully, “the ContEd catalogue should’ve said that.”) For her part, Isobel downplays her own abilities – when asked to say something about herself in the first class, she responds: “I’m Isobel. I used to be good at math.”

But the disparity between Isobel and Barton is largely illusory; it turns out that Barton flunked out of law school and the story indicates that he is more receptive to Isobel than she allows herself to believe. Still, Rosenblum is too subtle to settle for a simple story of mutual attraction or aversion; her two characters circle around one another, engaging in a nervous chess match of flirtation and dissuasion, until Isobel’s final epiphany at the story’s close. Significantly, this epiphany involves a realization, not a definitive action. The story opens itself up at the finish, rather than coming to a tidy, reductive resolution.

By the end of the story, it is the reader who feels most uncomfortable – “ContEd” is such an intimate tale that the reader’s experience comes perilously close to voyeurism. Rosenblum allows us to witness these characters in their most emotionally naked moments, which is an act of bravery for a writer, and something fabulously rare in the annals of CanLit.

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