Every night for the last 12 years, Anne has slept by the phone, waiting for calls. A few minutes after half past two in the morning, perhaps, the phone will ring.
Sometimes the caller is a nuisance, which is why Anne prefers to keep her last name private. But more often than not, somebody is calling for a few words of reassurance. They ask Anne a straightforward question: Am I still alive?
Anne tells them that, yes, they are alive, and then they hang up, released from their confusion, at least for tonight.
I grew up in coastal California, the proud heart of the avocado belt. Yet I had never heard of avocado toast before coming to New York, which seemed odd, since New York avocados are mostly disgusting—small, starchy, and at once underripe and bruised. The toast, at first, felt of a piece with the same Gotham masochism that makes New Yorkers pay three-quarters of their income for hutch-like apartments and relish walks on trash-walled streets. I shrugged it off. Then, a few years ago, I started noticing acquaintances proposing avocado toast instead of lunch. (“Let’s get lunch soon!” is the traditional way to issue a hard goodbye in this city; one imagines it being shouted into six-foot trenches.) At that moment, I joined the frenzy. “We should get avocado toast,” I began announcing to friends and their dogs on the street. I found myself portentously signing e-mails “Avocado toast soon,” like a crazed man with a sandwich board foretelling the apocalypse.
Biddable urban people have had many culinary fixations over the years: bran, goji berries, boba, or those burgers with the mournful lettuce buns. Few people have suggested that any of these are stifling the middle class. Something about avocado toast taps into a deeper sense of where the world is headed, and—depending on your view of that future—is either scrumptious or abhorrent. Why? Even at a time when fancy sandwich stuffs are imbued with social symbolism, avocado toast remains a cultural cipher, a new lunchtime icon with a hazy past.
At age seven, when I started at my new school in Texas, as one of only three Indian kids, I was desperate to fit in. Most of the kids brought brown-bag lunches containing Oscar Mayer turkey sandwiches on snow-white slices of Wonder Bread, accompanied by those little bags of Snyder’s pretzels. My parents wanted to pack me leftover dal—our cumin-spiked lentil soup—and sabzi (vegetables stir-fried in some sort of masala). But I saw the way the kids reacted with shrieks and wrinkled noses when the other Indian girl in my grade brought that kind of stuff to the cafeteria. Having a normcore lunch was a way of telling people that you weren’t here to disturb the status quo. So I begged my mom not to make me take Indian food. Maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
If you sit for many hours and look down at a book and then up at a city and then down at the book again, eventually the two blend into one, and there is no longer any difference between them. This is how the collapse between literature and life happens. Lots of people distinguish between books and life. The page and beyond the page. But in those cafés, when I was younger, I mixed them up in my mind, so I didn’t carry that line between the written and the real with me into adulthood, if I ever had it.
Treading water, sinking like a stone or riding the wave: there is something about water that makes it a good metaphor for life. That may be one reason why so many find solace in swimming when life’s seas get rough, and it goes some way towards explaining why “waterbiographies” and “swimoirs”, in which people tackle icy lakes, race in rivers and overcome oceans while reflecting on their lives, have recently become so popular.
These books reflect a trend, particularly strong in Britain, where swimming in pools is declining, but more and more folk are opting for open water. “Wild swimming” seems to be especially popular among women. Jenny Landreth writes about swimming for the Guardian and recently published a guide to the best dipping spots in London. Her new book, “Swell”, interweaves her own story with a history of female pioneers, “swimming suffragettes” who accomplished remarkable feats and paved the way for future generations.
Over the course of the past century, writers have spilled a disproportionate amount of ink on the subject of men and their cheating hearts, long before and after John Updike followed Rabbit Angstrom’s various pathetic, inexplicable infidelities.
As a literary theme, it’s about as played out as a dog barking in the distance on a dark and stormy night, but sometimes, miraculously, a writer manages to breathe some new life into the subject, even if it takes some hard-core CPR to do it.
As the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced.