‘Offertory’ by Amy Hempel

Offertory by Amy Hempel, 2005

The magic trick:

Using sex to consider the way we repurpose and reconcile the past

I find that many of Amy Hempel’s stories, with some distance, blur together. There are the knockouts, of course – “San Francisco,” “Al Jolson,” “The Most Girl Part Of You,” to name three. But many others, no matter how effective in the moment, become a mishmash of clever agony in my brain.

“Offertory” is not bound to get lost in that shuffle. This is the Hempel story that gets explicitly sexual. The narrator uses detailed storytelling to arouse her partner, and she uses detailed storytelling for us, the reader, to describe that detailed storytelling.

So yes, that’s shockingly memorable. But you know what? All that winds up being window dressing. The story still comes down to Hempel’s central themes: the way we mythologize our pasts and how we reconcile those myths with the present.

She lays out those ideas with some incredibly potent sentences here.

Consider:

I had twenty years to go to get to be as old as he was, and then, if I got there, I’d have to go counting almost twenty years again. I was still in my thirties, but I was the one of us who was old. Anyway, he said he was nostalgic for my past.

And then consider:

It is possible to imagine a person so entirely that the image resists attempts to dislodge it.

Not many authors can nail an idea so completely in so few words. These are the insights you remember. And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.

The selection:

His voice, doing so was — sophisticated. It was a young man’s voice; it was dignified and persuasive, and made me feel like an accomplice. Under the words, his voice seemed to say “You and I are looking at this together, and we see the same thing.” When I could keep up with him, that was true.

We walked easily together; I leaned into him, my head almost to his shoulder.

He continued the analysis over dinner, and as we were finishing, he said, “What if one told every truth! Recorded the most evanescent reactions, every triviality, an unimpeded account of lovers’ minute-by-minute feelings about the other person: Why didn’t she order the braised beef the way I did? She raved about the sea bass, wrongly. I set my watch three minutes fast; she set it back.”

Here he took us into the future — he reached across the table to stroke my hair. “And I’d say, ‘What about her hair across the pillow? I had thought it would be finer.’”

His stance was not unlike the one I had proposed to him in my letter, that we observe the Wild West practice: We put our cards on the table.
We moved into what he called “the precincts of possibility,” of anything-goes, of nothing undisclosed.

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