Vanessa Veselka: “Just before Elena” from Tin House #53, Fall 2012 Portland-Brooklyn

There’s not going to be a baby shower, because there’s no one to plan it. Everyone thinks someone else, someone closer to me, is taking care of it, but they aren’t. And I’m sure as hell not going to ask people to come over and throw a party for me.… My midwife says I should look at my pregnancy as an opportunity to get closer to my women friends. But I figure they’ve had their chance. Ten years of punk shows, basement parties, and having sex with all the same people should have been enough to break the ice.

This story about faith struck me as remarkably similar to “The Shapeshifter Principle” from the same issue. That’s not a complaint, not at all; it’s a great story about another isolated woman showing great courage. And, in a coincidental tribute to The X-Files references in “Shapeshifter,” she really, really wants to believe.

The unnamed first-person narrator isn’t a teenager: she’s a pregnant adult who, technically, isn’t alone. She lives with Silas, the baby’s father, who may or may not be her husband. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t actually alone:

He doesn’t believe in anything. The difference between us is that he doesn’t want to. We aren’t much more than roommates now and my pregnancy feels more like coordinating a CSA share than having a child. You take the carrots and onions. I’ll take the kale and beets. You to the grocery store runs. I’ll go to the bank. I’ll take all the radiologist visits. You read at least one book on what’s happening with my body. Both of us have to go to the birthing classes and we split the Yukon Gold potatoes.

She feels the baby move for the first time, so she calls Silas at work to tell him. “That’s great,” he says, “call someone.” I think the loneliness when you’re with another person is maybe the most intense kind of loneliness there is.

Her midwife presses the issue of connecting with women friends, asking who she knew five years ago. The narrator tells her about her roommate at the time.

One day I left her espresso pot on the stove and burned the rings. She woke me up screaming, espresso pot in one hand, burnt rubber rings in the other, naked, with her legs covered in menstrual blood. “Get out!” she shrieked, her blue Mohawk an azure fountain, her pink skin red under the black ink of her tattoos.

Yeah, I think that’s probably not someone you’d want to be around when you’re pregnant. Or any time, really.

She turns to religion, and starts seeing Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere: painted on a taco truck outside work, on a calendar in the break room. She wonders if maybe she went to Spanish masses, she’d have an easier time believing because she wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said.

This story is one of three connected stories; the other two will be appearing in Zyzzyva and Swink (which, happily, is online). I have no idea how the stories are connected, but I’m curious.

Veselka is kind of hot stuff right now: her debut novel Zazen just won the 2012 Robert Bingham Prize. You can listen to her read six minutes of the opening, or read the interview about it. I’m not one for dystopian future novels, and I have no particular interest in self-immolation, but I’m intrigued by the implications of the question, “Is it possible to sit still while on fire?”

In the end, the narrator of “Just Before Elena” finds her faith, and it has nothing to do with the Virgin Mary. She finds faith in a far more powerful woman: herself. Except Veselka has a way of bringing you there without the cheese. Nice work.

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