They’d met freshman year of college, thrown together by default when it turned out they were the only people in their dorm not in an a capella group. Some of them could sing, and they loved getting on stage as a group on karaoke night and belting out songs., but really, who could stand all that constant harmonizing? They’d always walked the line between teasing and cruelty. It gave their relationship energy and power, as if they’d been told to hold hands and make their way over a cable across a canyon. Holding on was hard but letting go worse.
It’s so exquisitely written, it needs to be read, not summarized and excerpted. This, I’m learning, is the mark of a really good story: when to leave out one paragraph, one line, is to diminish the impact of the whole.
This is the second Karen Shepard story I’ve read, and in some ways, I’m recognizing the character Zizi from “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” in all the girls here. I think it’s a more complex story, though. There are more relationships, and they interweave in a more subtle way, bringing together several themes: frenemies. How women treat each other. Group dynamics. Group inaction, diffusion of responsibility until there is none. Truth that follows you no matter how far and how fast you run, “like something heavy and uneven had been rolled down a flight of stairs” when it’s finally revealed.
It’s written in third person plural – “they” – and I have to say I’m pretty pleased with myself that I recognized that before reading Shepard’s One Story Q&A. Overall it’s about a group of five girls who met in college, spending a week together as bridesmaids for the first wedding amongst them.
There’s Cleo, who’s “spacey, tone-deaf” and “made her living as an escort.” And Anna, “legal aid lawyer and former President’s great-great-granddaughter”; “she’d spent her life with these girls feeling like the one Catholic schoolgirl at the party.” Gwen is “the Asian, the smart one with a tendency toward the self-righteous and the cruel.” Tician is a performance artist who somehow makes a living using drugs; “her parents had named her after the painter, and misspelled the name.”
And then there’s the bride, Daphne, who is marrying Jack, an ad exec thirty years older, with two kids older than she is. When she told her parents about her engagement, “her father sent her an ad Jack had written for Metamucil.” This is Shepard’s gift, these little touches, like the misspelled artist, that reveal parents and backgrounds in a sentence. Daphne was in college what in my era was called “loose.” She slept with the lacrosse team one weekend. And she’s low girl on the totem pole in her little clique. “They were never more in harmony than when talking about her. She was the one who made them feel better about themselves.” This in particular struck me: I’ve been that person. A couple of times. I never realized it until I read these sentences.
There are hints scattered through the first half of the story of something that happened in college. It starts with a great metaphor: Daphne was ok with marrying a stable older man, because “she wanted to ride shotgun the rest of her life.” The others are a little dubious. “They all knew what could happen if you got into the wrong car.” As the story progresses, we hear about Charlie: “He’d been the worst of the cars she’d gotten into.” This slow tease is really artful, since it’s woven in very skillfully, with subtlety. It could almost be overlooked.
We find out about Charlie and what happened in a two-page flashback so perfectly tuned I really want to quote the whole thing. It’s not even clear what exactly happened. Charlie in the dorm suite with Daphne while the others are trying not to listen. Other boys, maybe three, come in. Belt buckles hit the floor. “All the sounds they heard might not have been sounds of distress. Some of them still told themselves that.” The roommates do nothing but try not to listen. Bystander syndrome, it’s called, or Genovese Syndrome after Kitty Genovese, raped and stabbed to death while her neighbors listened and no one called the police. It’s also based on a real incident Shepard heard about, she says in her Q&A. Later, Daphne is frantically blasé about it; Charlie “got a little weird.” They try to forget the sounds of the belt buckles. They try to forget how Daphne went quiet.
And now the night before the wedding, Cleo claims to have slept with the groom-to-be (and gotten paid for it). She’s lying – she came onto him but he declined – but she’s the only one who knows that. They debate telling Daphne just who she’s marrying. But they decide not to:
They imagined telling her everything. They imagined how far back they would have to go…And they understood that they wouldn’t be gathering again any time soon. Life, they’d tell themselves, had gotten away from them. Because it was one thing to have a secret shame and it was another to have to confess to yourself that you were never going to face it.
They do get together again, a year later for their ten-year reunion. Charlie shows up at an after-party in a local watering hole, and it leads to a confrontation between Daphne (now getting divorced) and the rest of the crowd that’s, again, too exquisite and complex to summarize. It prods Cleo to talk to Jack and explain what happened back in college, during Dead Week. This might be the one false note in the story. I understand it provides some symmetry, some redemption for Cleo, and it separates her from the group thus giving her the opportunity to act decently for a change – but it just doesn’t sound like something someone would actually do. Mostly it provides the opportunity for some remarkable explanation, including:
Why did girls do these things to each other?
And Cleo, surprising herself, offered what she knew: Because, she said, that’s what girls do. They do stupid hurtful things until they figure out not to.
Then there’s a return to the wedding, to the bridesmaids singing karaoke at the reception. In retrospect, this denouement seems a bit incongruous to me, this additional jump in time, but while I was reading, provided some breathing room for all that’s gone before, a kind of levelling-out phase, and it returns to the harmony metaphor from the beginning. So it was effective. It just doesn’t sound like it was when summarized.
That’s why the story has to be read: because the telling, the little details, the tone, the nuance, is why it works.