Short Story Review – Kimberly Nichols – Hot Pink

You cannot wash your Korean away like this, she hisses. What were you thinking?

Young love.  It makes fools of us all, and when we are older we can look back at those times and laugh, or become bewildered at our strange ideas, or ashamed, or angry at what happened, or – well, lots of things.  Hopefully, mostly we can laugh.  When I was fourteen a friend of mine explained to me how women masturbated, and I believed him.  The way they did it was by rubbing themselves sideways against the rim of a toilet seat.  He said it with such confidence.  He was a year older, and of course he knew.  I remember viewing toilet seats with trepidation – wouldn’t that hurt whoever did that?  How could it possibly be a good thing to do?

He was wrong, of course, but I held on to that belief longer than I should, and I remember feeling so sorry for all the women who had to do that and contort themselves in painful, unpleasant ways.  Maybe that belief lasted a year?

At any rate, Kimberly Nichols’ short story, Hot Pink, is about a young girl coming into her sexual awareness, though that isn’t quite what she recognises it as at first.  Instead she simply adores a woman, adores adores adores her, obsesses over her and thinks about her.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Aunt Kelly surprised me with a birthday cake before we opened, and Uncle Jin-woo gave me a stack of vintage comic books, plus a lot of new Marvels with my favourite ladies: Storm, Rogue, Mystique, and Jean Grey. I couldn’t wait for work to be over so I could cuddle up in bed for the rest of the day and sink into fantasy with a bag of crispy chicharones from the carniceria next door.

I like the casual mix and flow of cultures, of cuisine, and of popular media.  It all swims together.  There’s a lack of segregation, which is refreshing.  Race doesn’t seem to matter, much, or class.  But sex certainly does.

The narrator’s family is Korean, and while the atmosphere of the family seems generally relaxed, Grandma Hyun is a bit of a controlling tyrant.  Her daughter, ‘the one who went wrong’, left the family home years ago, and now our narrator, Jay, is becoming an adult and developing a strong internal identity.  She’s seventeen, and she’s started painting nails at the family business.

And Sarah comes in.  Sarah is older, impossibly sophisticated, beautiful, and alluring.  Or, at least, she is to the narrator.  The text is awash in colour, smell and sound as the narrator obsesses over Sarah, idolising her.  It’s unclear whether she wants to be with Sarah or simply be Sarah.  What she does know, however, is that how she feels towards Sarah is wrong.

By the time I turned 18, I had painted Sarah over 20 times. The hot pink splotch on the wallpaper behind my bed had grown to 24 square inches, its shaky-lined sides threatening to escape above my bed. I put extra pillows atop my covers lest it show. It grew exponentially with the turmoil eating away my brain, but every time I painted another spot, the peacefulness came to wash away the dirty.

Each time she paints Sarah’s toenails she squirrels away the nail polish and dabs at her wall, covering it in hot pink, hiding her shame.  Words like ‘stain’ are used.  It is ‘a throbbing heat that spreads across my cheeks like a dozen tiny pinpricks’.  It’s an impulse, something she doesn’t really understand, and certainly doesn’t want to stop.  It’s part of the ritual that comes with looking after Sarah.

There is an extended sequence where the narrator is ‘so heady with the idea of seeing Sarah’ that she frolics about with some flowers and ends up being stung by a bee.  I suppose she is allergic, because later she has a strong reaction to it.  But all she cares about is Sarah’s reaction, which is – concern.  This section is good, but it goes on for a little too long, I think, and its function within the story is overshadowed by a slightly later section dealing with Korean food.  In this part, the Sarah tells the narrator that she loves Korean food and so she goes home and puts her heart and soul into cooking bibimbap for her family.  Her grandmother is astonished at her unexpected interest in the food.  And pleased.  It’s a great sequence, and really highlights how when a teenager falls in love – particularly unrequited love – they become willing to bend all aspects of their self to seize on the perceived interests and desires of the focus of their attention.  Sarah mentions a food she likes, so the narrator must master it.  A follows B, obsession follows obsession.

Later, through a series of events which stretch credulity a touch, the narrator ends up next to Sarah in a massage room, naked or nearly so, and it’s there that she stumbles into her first confusing orgasm and the realisation that the love she has been experiencing is, well, love.  The orgasm+love portion of this is told very well, and is quite sensitive to the scattered feelings of a young, scrambled mind, but the surrounding events left me cold.

It comes down to length.  At close to four and a half thousand words, I think the story would have been more effective at three thousand.  That’s a lot easier to say in this forum than it is to understand (or agree with!) when writing the piece itself.  I don’t begrudge the extra sequences, but I think the same ideas are explored with greater clarity and force in other portions of the story.  Hot Pink is at its best when the narrator swims in and out of her and other people’s cultures, and when she revels, simply revels, in the confusing maelstrom of erotic, romantic confusion.

So what do we have, then? A story about a young gay woman discovering herself which touches on the difficulty of being gay in America in a migrant family without beating anyone over the head with it (good!).  A story about a young woman who is stung by a bee and has a mother who abandoned her, mostly so the end can tie up neatly (less good).  A story which is sensitive to the heightened feelings of youth, of how seriously they take themselves even when the activities they perform and thoughts they have are beyond ridiculous (excellent).

And Sarah?  Well, she could have been anyone.  She wasn’t, she was Sarah, but she could have been anyone.  The narrator was a flower waiting to unfold, and Sarah was the catalyst to make this happen.  I would hope that the narrator, when she herself is in her forties, would imagine Sarah fondly, wistfully appreciative that an object of desire was able to make itself available just as her teenage self needed it.  And that is something.  You don’t forget your Sarah.

Hot Pink is a short story by American writer Kimberly Nichols.  You can read the story online at The Puritan.

Author Kimberly Nichols
Title Hot Pink
Nationality American
Publisher The Puritan

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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I Remember – #904

I remember lying on my stomach in bed, in winter, surrounded by the cold, attempting Gravity’s Rainbow while listening to A Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in, I believe, early 2003, when I first started uncovering my adult self (absolutely accidentally but today, 17 June 2018, while posting this, I am listening to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven).

-13 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #903

I remember the faded blue dressing gown my mother used to wear in the mornings when she had her first coffee and cigarette for the day.  It’s one of my strongest memories of her, and in some ways my memory has distorted to where she always had that dressing gown, and always wore it, every morning, from when I was born until I was twenty-six and she was dead. I think that after she died my youngest sister took ownership of it and packed it into a vacuum bag for protection, but I don’t know for sure.

-12 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Nadia Villafuerte – Cosmo Girl (trans. Julie Ann Ward)

So much is made, these days (these days being mid-2018), about illegal immigrants making their way to America that it is easy to forget, perhaps, that for other people ‘undesirable’ countries are, in fact, a comparative paradise.  Nadia Villafuerte’s story Cosmo Girl is the story of Elena, once an erotic dancer, once an alcoholic, once on the cusp of falling into hedonism and a life of being a paid woman.  But no longer – she’s escaped, or rather escaping, and her destination is Mexico.

She was born in El Salvador.  She doesn’t touch on it much, other than to remember it with distaste.  It’s clear enough that she didn’t have a future there, and that she sees on in Mexico, particularly in Juarez.  The story opens with Elena boarding a bus, about to leave for Mexico City from Tapachula, where she has spent some time earning money, trying to become legitimate.

More than a year in the nightclub with a stifling routine of undressing, fucking, and drinking without knowing why. More than a year clenching her teeth to avoid the dazzling offers that would have her buy clothes or furniture for a tiny monthly payment, whose real catch was anchoring her even more firmly in the city where she remained, inexplicably; Tapachula was only supposed to be a stop along the way.

Elena is contemptuous of many things, but she has a clear fondness for Mexican culture, women, and their people.  She wants a relationship with an officer because they are tall and powerful.  She likes the deep beauty of Salmita Hayek over pasty American girls.  And she wants to work hard, just no longer as a dancer or a whore.

Her destination was Juárez. But clearly it would have been enough to settle in Tapachula and never return to her hometown where, despite its touristic attractiveness, she wouldn’t amount to anything more than just another little whore, without aspirations or glory.

Elena boards the bus.  The story is written mostly in present tense, though much of it is also spent on remembering her immediate past and how she came to this important time.  And it is an important time – it’s clear from the way Elena thinks about her upcoming bus trip that this is a pivotal moment in her life, one that will either begin the path to happiness, or force her down into the much she is so desperately attempting to escape from.

She doubts that she’ll ever be able to live in a Yankee city; she prefers to be realistic; she is ambitious, but her dreams have guardrails.

Much of the second half of the story centres around Elena on the bus to Mexico City.  She knows she is an illegal immigrant, and, worse, she knows also that officials check buses with the intention of deporting the unwanted.  The tension rises, and time seems to slow down, focusing intently on what is happening moment by moment.  The writing becomes quite physical, spending time on sounds, on smells, on the feel of material and the atmosphere in the air.

They can’t take me. I’m practically Mexican.

But she’s not, and when an officer boards the bus, she thinks her time is done.  The story drips with anticipation.  Will Elena be taken?  Is it okay to breathe a sigh of relief with another woman is dragged from the bus instead of her?  What of that woman’s dreams?  What of that woman’s destroyed future?

I have read, now, two stories by Villafuerte, and each deal with a woman who dreams of a better life.  They come at their dreams from different angles, but the overall thrust is the same.  These are stories of women who have lived lives harder than they might have liked, and hope to be on the cusp of something easier.  They aren’t work shy, but they want to get away from grasping male hands and capitalist exploitation.  They want simple things, and are frustrated that they aren’t able to have them.  They dream and want to be dreamed about; they see themselves as sexual beings and want to give themselves to another, but not always the people they have, so far, met.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow, she thinks, yawning.

Cosmo Girl is a short story by Mexican writer Nadia Villafuerte, and was translated by Julie Ann Ward.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Nadia Villafuerte
Title Cosmo Girl
Translator Julie Ann Ward
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Lizzie Nunnery – Moving to the Sticks

He was possessed of a young soul. He knew that about himself.

Some people should never get old.  It’s not for them, it’s not right.  After a certain time, they flounder, become less useful, flutter in the wind.  What to do?  There’s no real answer, but the question is so much worse when you’ve experienced fame in your youth.  Best to die young – better to be a legendary Kurt Cobain than a middle-aged Eddie Vedder.

Or maybe not.  Eddie Vedder seems to be doing alright.  He’s created a niche for himself, and he owns it.  Pearl Jam are supremely themselves, and that seems to be working out for him and for them.

In Lizzie Nunnery’s short story, Moving to the Sticks, the protagonist, Cruickshank, has not find a niche, and life isn’t working out for him.  He’s old, grey, tired, used up like a worn brake-pad, scratched up like a discarded CD-ROM (remember them?).

He has his resentments, oh yes.  Filled with black tea and nicotine, tired from hardly any sleep, he thinks:

As soon as he was out the door and over the centuries-old cobbles, who was to say he hadn’t strolled out of a townhouse worth half a million? Who was to say he didn’t have some chrome and leather rented pad?

But it hasn’t worked out like that for him.  Instead he’s washed up, forgotten, miserable.

Nunnery conveys this concept well.  Cruickshank doesn’t, really, rage or wear his heart on his sleeve.  He may not love his life, but it’s his, and it fits him like a jacket worn for many years.  The sentences are clipped and short, but fibrous, connected, all of a piece, building momentum, creating a picture.  We learn much about him by what he isn’t saying – he’s old, and done, and life has passed him by, you know what?  Cigarettes are still good.  And booze.  And young women.

Ah, yes.  The young women.  One remembers him, in a club called The Jac.  He dislikes the people she’s with (they are young, you see), but is willing to listen to her (she’s young, you see).  She wants to talk to him, to thank him, to let him know how much his songs meant to her.  But –

She had her fingers on his sleeve now, quoting lyrics from some B-side he recorded in 1985. Like he bloody remembered. He concentrated on not staring at the wine. She was saying something about his ‘cultural contribution’. Jesus Christ.

But she’s young.  Yes.  Pretty, or pretty enough, but young, and, for all Cruickshank’s swagger, he really is world-weary, and over it all, and if he ever managed to catch himself a young lady he probably wouldn’t have a clue what to do with her.  He has the disappointed middle-aged man’s disdain for anyone a decade or more younger than him, which is to say – increasingly everyone.  Each year there’s more of them and less of him.

And then after a while she returns to her friends, and she tries to explain who he is, and perhaps she’s embarrassed or maybe not, but soon she’s making fun, mimicking him when he was, like she is now, young and vibrant.  And it hurts

Cruickshank stopped short a few feet away, an extra suddenly in the wrong scene. 

And he knows he is being pathetic.

What to make of it all?  It’s a sad, grey story that isn’t written grey or sad, but not happy, either.  Wistful, perhaps, for time that has passed by.  Regretful, certainly.  But alive, too, energetic in certain aspects, and unwilling, yet, to give up.  Nunnery’s sentences curl around Cruickshank, they enliven him, reflecting his personality back to the reader with greater strength than his words or thoughts or deeds.

Some people need to die young so they can avoid the embarrassment of being their older self looking back.  But that never really solves anything, except of course you are dead.  Cruickshank doesn’t want it, not really, though if it had happened all the way back then, well – okay.  But it didn’t, and so he’ll drink and walk and grumble about the ignorance of youth and the truth of his own early artistic strengths.  But he knows that even this, too, is performative, and that there’s a niceness to playing a role, even if it is that of the ogre.

Moving to the Sticks is a short story by British writer Lizzie Nunnery.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Lizzie Nunnery
Title Moving to the Sticks
Nationality British
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Tom Tomaszewski – Two of Us in Seaford

Her eyes ran backwards and forwards over my face and she said: ‘Well, they buy up the houses for investments, don’t they, or they fit their relations in one place, cousins, aunts, uncles, all under one roof. It’s unhygienic and, frankly, it’s dangerous.’

“They”.  Here in Australia, the “they” are often Asian families, usually Chinese.  It’s fascinating.  You’ll be having an ordinary conversation and then all of a sudden someone will start ranting – it’s definitely ranting, folks – about how Chinese people are invading suburbs and paying for houses in cash to then move in excessively large families and ‘take over’.  The word choices aren’t accidental.  The word ‘invasion’ always comes up.  And ‘they’.  Sometimes people will say ‘Chinese’, but it’s usually not necessary.  Of course it’s assumed that everyone knows who ‘they’ is.

Tom Tomaszewski’s short story, Two of Us in Seaford, deals with, I expect, a different “they” than what we have in Australia, but the broad concept is the same.  Small-town, small-minded individuals who wish to create connective tissue with other, similar-looking people by hating an outsider group.  It’s so tiresome how often it happens.

In this story, two people, George and Tom, arrive at a bed and breakfast.  The couple who own and run the place, Nigel and Betty, introduce themselves and welcome the two men into the building.  Betty takes the lead, she shows them about, and while she does, she drops comments.  Comments like the above.  Comments about how people are animals.  Comments about how it’s important to keep everything at an even keel and not disturb others.

We looked out and in the fading light saw some green fields through the rain and the mist. It was all lovely for November, the grass taller than maybe it would usually be, people striding through it with their dogs. Behind all that, yes there was a golf course. Men in Gore-Tex jackets pulling trolleys, etcetera.

Tomaszewski’s tone throughout is casual, as evidenced by the above.  I like this, I like the way ‘etcetera’ is used, and phrases like ‘It was all lovely’.  This grounds the story, keeps it human, and helps to create an immediate connection with the narrator without the author needing to put in a lot of effort.  He’s chatty and friendly, and so it’s easy enough to forge a bond.

The bed and breakfast is completely unpleasant, of course, and it’s intended to be so.  But who are George and Tom?  We don’t really know, at least not until the end.  It’s quite jarring how much of a shift the story takes, to the point where I read it twice to try to find hints of it.  And they are there, but this is a surprising and satisfactory way to end such a story.

It’s a satisfying fantasy, but unfortunately that is all it is.  There are no demonic judges visiting the houses of bigots to remove them from this world.  Absolution will not arrive via souls being consumed by demons.  It’s nice to think about, and it’s a nice way to end the story, but it’s also somewhat hopeless, too.  Is that all we can hope for?  Is there really no other way?

But Tomaszewski is not required to provide an answer to our social ills.  He reflects an ugly part of it quite well, and is adept at conveying the satisfaction that would be felt from those kinds of people experiencing their comeuppance.  And all of this is to the good. Two of Us in Seaford thankfully does not outstay its welcome – the last thing we need is a screed highlighting how awful the right is and how justified the left.  That is, basically, just as aesthetically rotten as when a bigoted, racist middle-aged lady goes on about how horrible “they” is.

Instead the answer is given to us via a strong metaphor.  To hate an individual because of some facet of the background is, I believe, an evil thing.  There is no good in it, and it is something to be ashamed of.  And yet today, in 2018, people are not ashamed to show their hate, to casually reveal their nastiness.  Tomaszewski throwing this back at the reader by literally having such people infernally punished for their hatred is immensely satisfying.  Which likely says something about me, too.

 

Two of Us in Seaford is a short story by British writer Tom Tomaszewski.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Tom Tomaszewski (Twitter)
Title Two of Us in Seaford
Nationality British
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #902

I remember a childhood friend, Peter, and visiting his house in Tinana during my early high school years when we had somewhat drifted apart.  I thought his home was very sophisticated because they had put in a path from the mailbox to the front door, and broken it up with a small bridge (all of three steps) over an artificial pool.  The absolute height of elegance, as far as I was concerned.

-11 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.