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A perfect day in the city starts like this: my friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann’s where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.
This is how Pam Houston’s 1999 short story “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” begins. And as we read on, we’re introduced by our narrator, Lucy, to numerous young single adults and lots of unrequited love. Lucy can tell us about her world with a sharp, sarcastic wit similar to the sitcoms Seinfeld or Friends (although the story is set in San Francisco instead of New York City). Even her reminiscing about how much her parents drank while she was growing up comes off as humorous.
However, in an astonishing fashion, Houston slowly lets us realize that the drinking problems of Lucy’s parents were not funny. In fact, as the flashbacks go deeper, we understand that the humor is only a mask for something more tragic. Houston perfectly aligns comedy to tell the story of some tragic family relationships.
This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Four of Clubs for Week 14 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.