The Second Person Study, Part 5: Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t” from I Sailed With Magellan

How adept we were at fumbling, how perfectly mistimed our timing, how utterly we confused energy with ecstacy.

Hello I am Zin! Welcome to another entry in my Second Person Study!

Another direct address to a participant in the story! Oh, I despair of ever finding a true second-person story! But it is a good story nonetheless, a relationship defined by what is not.

What are all the things that “did not” in the story? Besides the obvious, of course: two 1950s Chicago teens on the shores of Lake Michigan about to lose their virginity (complete with a condom dropped in the sand) when searchlights and sirens and police cars descend upon them – no, not upon them, upon the body of a young pregnant woman floating in the shallows just off the beach. Most of us remember how and where and when we lost our viriginity. Not that many of us remember how and where and when we did not. A life defined by absence. What you never had overshadows what you have.

But there is another sense to the phrase “We Didn’t” – it is a reassurance!

“But what if we had found her? What if after we had – you know,” you said, your eyes glancing away from mine and your voice tailing into a whisper, “what if after we did it, we went for a night swim and found her in the water?”
“But, Gin, we didn’t,” I tried to reason, though it was no more a matter of reason than anything else between us had ever been.

After this event the woman is with them always. At first it is just when they start to make out. But it gets more serious. Gin has dreams about her, imagines the whole life. “Even when she wasn’t mentioned, she was there with her drowned body – so dumpy next to yours – and her sad breasts…” They break up, of course. He becomes “the DH Lawrence of not doing it.” And he closes of the story:

But we didn’t, not in the moonlight, or by the phosphorescent lanterns of lighning bugs in your back yard, not beneath the constellations we couldn’t see, let alone decipher, or in the dark glow that replaced the real darkness of night, a darkness already stolen from us, not with the skyline rising behind us while a city gradually decayed, not in the heat of summer while a Cold War raged despite the freedom of youth and the license of first love – because of fate, karma, luck, what does it matter? – we made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did.

I love the ambiguity there – is the last phrase of nots referring to not doing it, or to making not doing it a wonder?

So why in person-and-a-half? Why not in regular first person with Gin as “she”? The book is a series of linked stories about this boy. I have not read the other stories, but in a quick skim I do not think any of them are person-and-a-half. Maybe it is because this story is more intimate, it requires a more intimate form of address, a voice saved for Gin alone. Maybe it echoes how he still wants to speak to her and tell her, how the not doing it is still part of him.

In an interview with Other Voices Dybek discusses the origins of the piece. His major inspiration was a poem by Yehuda Amichai called “We Did It” and he uses a quote from this poem at the opening of “We Didn’t”:

We did it in front of the mirror
And in the light. We did it in darkness,
In water, and in the high grass.

Compare this with the opening of “We Didn’t”:

We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows.”

The last paragraph of the story, quoted above, echoes this poetry, and adds in some of the glory of the later lines of the poem:

We did it with imagination and colours,
With confusion of reddish hair and brown
And with diffuclt gladdening
Exercises. We did it

Like wheels and holy creatures
And with chariot-feats of prophets.

He also credits as inspiration the poetry of Pablo Neruda – Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – (“Love is brief: forgetting lasts so long”). And Molly Bloom, her soliloquy from Ulysses. I am not sure if any of these sources indirectly inspired this inspired person-and-a-half voice (none of them use it). Maybe the poetic feel of the language.

In any event it is a lovely story, full of nostalgia and love and regret and acceptance.

4 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 5: Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t” from I Sailed With Magellan

  1. Wonderful! I’ve got to find this story. I’ve always wanted to write this kind of story–all the things that didn’t happen. Thanks for writing about it. All your “second person” posts are great.

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 1: “Boys” by Rick Moody | A Just Recompense

Leave a Reply to Zin Kenter Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.