I Meant It Once

Image of I Meant It Once: Stories
Release Date: 
July 18, 2023
Algonquin Books
Reviewed by: 

“Fleet, funny, and perceptive, I Meant It Once entertains even as it contemplates what people actually mean to each other, and what it all means.”

Kate Doyle’s lively stories are titled and delivered like asides: “This Is the Way Things Are Now.” “What Else Happened.” “At the Time.” Both transient and in transition, her twenty-something protagonists are in medias res, stuck in temp jobs or retreating to childhood homes, caught between dissatisfactory pasts and uncharted futures. But look beyond the upper middle-class ennui and sly humor of these tales, and one will find a deft touch with language and a healthy helping of poignance, as every remembrance is fraught with regret, and every casual conversation is a minefield in which a single offhand comment can set off emotional detonations.

The stories in I Meant It Once are loosely connected, as Doyle’s characters flit in and out of each other’s lives, flirting with commitment but unable to get a handle on it. The opening story in the collection “That Is Shocking,” sets the tone, with the effects of a past romantic breakup in college rippling forward to the present day, the hyperbolic ecstasies and agonies of youth taking center stage, as an innocuous debate over uneaten Valentine’s Day scones becomes pregnant with meaning and betrayal. A similar inciting incident supplies comic juice to “She Did Not Suffer Fools,” in which a woman’s dissatisfaction with her politically correct boyfriend emerges when they have a tiff over a Chinese food delivery order.

Above all, Doyle captures the whirligig experience of being young, hip, and adrift in the Big City: “Too young to reason, too grown up to dream,” as Bryan Ferry would croon. Her protagonists resort to astrology and tarot cards to divine their futures, are obsessed with ex-lovers and comrades who have fallen out of touch, and are all but ignored by a metropolis that motors on with or without them—and through Doyle’s wry dialogue and distinctive eye for details, they come off as neurotic yet relatable, clueless yet very human.

Some of the tales take on solemn undertones: “Moments Earlier” finds the tenuous bonds that tie four friends together frayed by an unexpected tragedy, and “You Are With Me” is a haunting reverie of a woman trapped in marriage and obligation, torn up by the expectation of having a child. Others chart the push and pull of family relations through quirky recollections: “We Can’t Explain” witnesses a family blow-up over dinner that’s preserved in a photo that reminds of the tempestuous ties that bind, while “This Is the Way Things Are Now” and “Cinnamon Baseball Coyote” tick off checklists of smart-alecky moments shared by three Salinger-esque siblings and their parents, hinting at future difficulties while treasuring their tetchy tiffs.

Other stories fixate on specific moments, captured in amber. In “I Figured We Were Dead,” a woman who has found nothing but disappointment in her life reflects on a single instant of bliss with a former boyfriend and his dog. “The Goldfish in the Pond at the Community Garden” recounts an unlikely first date that draws a couple together, even as the sweetness is undercut by uncertainty, as they end up arguing about where the date was meant to take place. Uncertainty is the name of the game in I Meant It Once, as every memory prompts doubts as to what actually happened, and what it all means. The sentiment is spelled out succinctly in “What Else Happened” when a character ruminates, “We didn’t trust ourselves, didn’t know what kind of people we were at heart.”

Even that time-tested method of breaking out of one’s shell, the school semester spent abroad, offers no conclusive answers. “What Else Happened” is an elongated moment of indecision, as a premed student deals with a crush on her TA, two broken wrists, an over-solicitous would-be boyfriend, and a burning desire to drop everything and learn French in Lyon; by story’s end, all of the above have evaporated into history. So it also is with “Briefly,” a rapturous reminiscence of study abroad in Ireland, as friends and would-be lovers emerge from the fog of memory, linger like welcome ghosts, then recede.

“Every character wants something,” says a nonplussed writing teacher to “Briefly”’s narrator before scolding her for her “evident incapacity to state outright what any character actually desired.” The characters in I Meant It Once are all similarly cursed, compelled to pick away at their own pasts like scabs in a frantic attempt to figure out who they are and what they want, but their curse is the reader’s blessing, thanks to Doyle’s masterful prose. And while catharsis is fleeting, it still lurks, whether it be an admission of love and loss in a rainstorm, the prospect of a new relationship, or the sighting of an apparition that may be a ghost, a figure from the past, or emotional baggage being left behind. Fleet, funny, and perceptive, I Meant It Once entertains even as it contemplates what people actually mean to each other, and what it all means.