Pushcart 2011: Elliott Holt, “Fem Care” from Kenyon Review Online

Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty

I’d miss my consumers. I’d miss their stories. When I drink my coffee in the morning, I think about the forty-two-year-old executive assistant in Seattle who gets migraines every month and finds that acupuncture and a latte are the only things that ease her pain. When I’m driving to work, I think about the twenty-seven-year-old teacher in Quito who stays in bed for two days because her cramps are so debilitating. Or the thirty-four-year-old caterer in Atlanta whose pad leaked all over her jeans on a first date. I’d be lost without those women. These days, they’re all I’ve got.

I couldn’t decide on a lead line:

This story shows why the Executive Washroom was invented.
OR: So here then is the difference between men and women: women share their secrets in ladies’ rooms.
OR: One of the advantages for a woman working in a male-dominated field is that you’ll never run into your boss in the ladies’ room.

It’s available online. Go ahead, read it; it’s not long, it’s an easy read, and you need to experience the funny/sadness, the pace and intensity of the reveals, and the characters of Annie and Susan, first-hand.

Annie is a market researcher for the feminine hygiene division of a health & beauty aids company. While the glamour people work on marketing skin creams and cosmetics, she finds out how women feel about menstruation.

She’s attending a convention and runs into a woman weeping in the ladies’ room – “She is willowy, with shiny black hair and chic even with red teary streaks on her cheeks. She looks like the kind of woman who has never succumbed to the urge to eat a second donut.” Neither woman realizes they are attending the same convention and work for the same company.

Annie learns a new angle on her subject of specialty when the woman shares some highly personal information with her: she’s bleeding all over her dress because she had an abortion a few days ago. Annie takes it in stride. “I’m trying to decide how to tell her that the first two weeks are the hardest and that it really does get better after that. But then I hear the toilet flush.” They realize they both are at the same conference, with the same company. The woman introduces herself as Susan Graves, a high-level exec whose name Annie recognizes, and frets about the bloodstain on her clothes. Annie helpfully suggests they exchange dresses, so Susan can do her presentation, due to start in mere minutes, and Annie has time to go back to her room and change. Now there’s a great example of shit rolling downhill for ya.

Is there any translation of this to the other side of the restroom wall? Would men do this sort of thing if one had, say, a semen stain on his pants from an inopportune erection? No idea. And despite her masculine name, Elliott Holt is a woman. Who, by the way, worked as an ad copywriter before she returned to Brooklyn College for her MFA.

The story looks at the differences between these two women, and the similarities. Annie and Susan are clearly in different strata. And they clearly share some experiences. But there are limits to how much Fem Care can be exchanged between them as they focus on different elements in the situation. When Susan later shows up at Annie’s room to return her dress, those differences and limits come into clearer focus.

It’s a wonderful read, as Annie torments co-worker Luis: “Despite his posturing, proximity to an actual menstruating woman makes Luis squeamish.” And as she enumerates the differences between the Anti-Dandruff people, the Fine Fragrance group, various divisions of the company: “The antiperspirant and deodorant divisions still don’t get any respect. It’s as bad as fem care. Sweat and blood are not much fun.” And as she remembers things past.

I realized while reading this story how rare it is for literary fiction to deal with professional women at work. Genre fiction is full of female doctors, lawyers, and magazine editors, but literary fiction sticks with waitresses and hookers (or the ubiquitous academic) or nebulous jobs when it mentions work at all. To be fair, not that much more is written about professional men. But it’s nice to see this character, this setting, this thoughtful treatment complete with humor and humanity, differences and common bonds, and a recognition that sometimes it’s who you run into in the ladies’ room that matters.

Note: You may be wondering what the amazing art – is it carved lettuce? No, it’s a photo from the late Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2010-2011 exhibit “Savage Beauty” at the Met – has to do with the story. Not much. Except, the story involves a dress. And I ran across this picture (while googling “feminine hygiene” and “art”) on a blog by the Maxim titled “Green Feminine Hygiene Queen.” I felt like I’d found Annie. That’s enough of a connection for me.

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4 responses to “Pushcart 2011: Elliott Holt, “Fem Care” from Kenyon Review Online

    • Hey, thanks very much for writing the story – and for stopping by. I get a little freaked out when an author comments on a post I’ve written about her story – I worry, did I say something stupid? Misspell something? Insult her? But whatever blunders I may have committed in my comments, it was a great story, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

      • You made no blunders. I believe that once a story’s published, it doesn’t just belong to the writer. It’s out there, it belongs to readers, too. You’re entitled to read and interpret a text any way you choose. Thanks! Elliott

  1. Pingback: Pushcart XXXV (2011): Final Thoughts « A Just Recompense

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