Pushcart 2014: Elizabeth Ellen, “Teen Culture” from American Short Fiction, Summer 2012

I realize I’m now that girl in the movie, the one who only wants her ex back because he’s finally met a nice girl and is happy. I mean I’m not that girl, but I’m aware that’s how it appears. Also, I’m not entirely convinced Adam is “happy.” Nor am I convinced Stacy is a “nice girl.” Just because she had her arms ripped off by a shark doesn’t make her automatically and for ever nice girl. And handing her a get-out-of-being-a-bitch free card just because she’s hand-job-challenged isn’t exactly treating her like everyone else. Treating her like everyone else means assuming she’s a frigid bitch because she’s sleeping with, or presumably sleeping with, the love of my life.

This is one of those stories where I very much like individual parts, but don’t care for the whole. Maybe it’s because I never “got” Ferris Bueller; every time I try to watch it, I wait for Ben Stein’s moment and then lose interest. Maybe it’s because Ellie’s Mom (that’s how her daughter’s teenage boyfriend addresses her; it’s one of the individual parts I very much like) is, in my harsh and judgmental opinion, too old for the obsessing she’s doing, which, I suppose, is the point (and it might be time for me to re-read Roxane Gay’s great Buzzfeed essay about “the importance of unlikable female protagonists”). Fine, point taken; but there must be something else, something I’m missing.

Mostly it’s the story of Ellie’s Mom hanging out with her teenage daughter and friends, kinda sorta buddying up with daughter’s boyfriend (I was worried for a while it was going to turn into that story, but it didn’t), while she’s listing all the reasons Adam is not texting her. After the first one or two, I was on Adam’s side. This is a woman out to derail herself, and she does a pretty good job.

Apparently Ellie’s Mom is a photographer, and she must be a good one since money isn’t an issue at all in the story; on the contrary, she offered to pay Adam a fair sum to get rid of him back when getting rid of him was what she wanted (just for the record: I’ll go away for a lot less than that). In any event, I’m surprised at how much her financial independence disoriented me; have I become conditioned to expect single mothers to be poor? Or is it the combination of her often adolescent voice and behavior?

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, I do love the Shark Girl riff. And the graveyard scene. I’ve hung out in graveyards – Mt. Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, all sorts of fancy graves there, and some tiny little incredibly ancient one off some ancient church. They do make for some terrific photographs. And, as annoying as it it some of the time, I’m intrigued by the voice, particularly when the whiney adolescent Ellie’s Mom gives way to more sophisticated concerns.

Like the baby-that-never-was. Society has finally accepted that a woman might mourn over a miscarriage; how about a baby that wasn’t even conceived, except as an idea? I suppose that’s the crux of the matter right there, since it’s put off until the end, and presented via shopping and graveyards; you know something’s important when it spans that gap. Unfortunately, for me – and I’m putting this in the same way Ellie’s Mom puts her regard for Surfer Girl – by the time I got to that part, I just wanted her to shut up and leave me alone.

And you know how there are those moments in your life when everything was really shitty, so shitty you come up with a whole new philosophy to go with the shittiness, a whole new set of morals, a whole new code of ethics, because suddenly it seems like nothing at all you do or don’t do matters and the shittiness is like a freedom you never knew you had? Yeah, well, that’s all bullshit, too. Wait 30 seconds and those moments pass and you’re right back where you started, fucking shit up.

Twelve-steppers have a bumper sticker for that (they have a bumper sticker for everything, don’t they): “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” (also attributed to Albert Einstein, btw). It seemed like a tedious read to get to someone else’s psychological hamster wheel.


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