‘Wants’ by Grace Paley

“Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years so I felt justified.” A woman runs into her ex-husband on the way to return two Wharton novels that have been overdue for eighteen years. (She checks them out again after paying the fine because she read them so long ago.) They reminisce a little. “But as for you,” the ex says, “it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.”

He had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.

And she sits back down on the library steps to consider her wants. That’s it. That’s the whole story. But contained within it are a few lifetimes, a critique of state bureaucracies, a philosophy of breakfast, self-acceptance, change, continuance, and several more unforgettable lines.

Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974

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