Indianapolis, late September, Saturday night.
The hotel brimmed with wedding parties and attendees of the National Black MBA Association Conference.
I was attending neither.
I’d been nominated for an award for my story collection Girls in Trouble—an award I didn’t win—and had just returned from the dinner celebration and award ceremony. Was I disappointed that I came back empty handed? I’ll lie: the honor and a thrill of being nominated was award enough.
Having fulfilled my obligation of smiling and shaking hands and chatting and posing for photos, all while waiting in agony until the winner was announced, my wife and I decided to check out the town.
We hit the hotel, changed, then made our way down the hall.
Waiting at the elevator was a group dressed in gowns and suits.
Nodding hello, I stated the obvious. “Just come from a wedding?” It was 10 p.m. The reception would have been in full swing. Drinks, dancing, and fun. The group should have been elated. Instead, they were dour. They looked like they’d just been brutalized in bankruptcy court and were now pondering a eight-floor window exit to the parking lot below.
No one responded to my question. So I asked again. “Come from a wedding?”
A grunt. “Yeah,” one woman said.
The elevator arrived. We all clambered in silently.
Guess they’re not in the mood to talk, I thought. But I was cagey. (Was it due to the fact that I hadn’t won the award, the effects of the three strong cocktails, or nasty dessert kicking about in my stomach? I can’t say.) There was no way I letting this group off easy.
When the doors slipped closed, I turned to the young woman nearest me. “What did you do wrong this week?” I asked.
She looked up at me, startled. “Nothing.”
I turned to her friend. “What did you do wrong this week?”
Her face lit with fear. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
One last query. A man in his early 20s. “And you, sir. What did you do wrong?”
He shook his head, refusing to meet my eyes.
The leader of the pack poked me in the back. “You can’t ask that kind of question in a public elevator!”
“Is there any other type of elevator?” I said, realizing that—of course—there was.
But my question silenced him.
“Well,” I announced, “would you like to know what I did wrong this week?”
Everyone turned to me, rapt.
“I lied to my students,” I said.
“About what?” the poker asked.
“Yeah, tell us,” the grunter said.
“Well, I lied about—”
The elevator chimed. The doors glided open. The lobby. “Looks like we’re here,” I said, striding out with my wife.
“What’d you lie about?” they all called after me.
But I didn’t answer.
Yes, I’d been a bit of an ass. And what did that accomplish? Nothing.
But after a day or so, I realized I had been striving for something more.
I was trying to connect. Trying to find commonality in a crowded elevator. But we’d all done something wrong that week—how could we have not? We’re human. I was, heavy-handedly, trying to tap into that fact. Trying to acknowledge that we are all in a fight to be better individuals, and that we all, daily, experience the failure of accomplishing perfection. And it’s the acknowledging and sharing of failures that make us able to relate to one another. It is what enables us to bond, to understand, and to feel we are not alone. It’s how we endure.
Good fiction does the same thing. It connects. As readers, we may never experience an Oklahoma dustbowl, a vengeful ghost, or espionage in a foreign country. But as readers, we have experienced similar joys, heartbreaks, terror, love, and disappoint as the characters in our favorite stories. And that’s the connection. The bond. The unique universality that affirms our humanity.
And for the record, I didn’t lie to my students—at least not that week.
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