BASS 2015: Sarah Kokernot, “M & L” from West Branch, #76

In the never-ending list of awful things that could happen to people each second, Miriam’s awful thing was so small that she could render it insignificant. But whenever she thought it had disappeared completely, it would come back as clear and uncomfortable as a hot light on her face.

In her Contributor Note, Kokernot says she wanted to try something “tender and subtle” dealing with the subject of old trauma. The subtlety seemed to be too subtle for me; I found the story to be almost mathematically symmetrical – trauma, healing relationship, breakup, reverse breakup, healing relationship the other way, end trauma – and in places, a little on-the-nose. But then we have the camel out of left field (literally).

The story’s divided into two sections, subheaded “M” and “L”, for Miriam and Liam, two old friends attending a wedding with a group of other old friends.

They had dated for three years in high school after what had been, at least for Liam, an agonizing crush that could be traced back to the fifth grade. It had begun on the day she was captain for recess basketball. He was the shortest kid back then and always chosen last, shifting from 1 foot to the other and smiling good-natured late to show it didn’t bother him. She’d admired him because of this, and pitied him a little. So she tapped him first. Afterward he seemed to be everywhere, trembling as he passed her a box of markers, staring at her with undisguised longing across the rows of cafeteria tables. It was all tremendously flattering. It was all tremendously irritating. She would ignore him for weeks and then, for reasons she couldn’t explain, return a look of equal longing, pass notes to him in the shape of origami cranes, share answers to the math homework, which he always forgot. By seventh grade she had the second-biggest boobs of any girl in the middle school. Grown men honked their horns and whistles as she walked home from the bus stop.

That paragraph becomes particularly meaningful a page or two later, when one of the plus-ones at the wedding brings the old trauma back to the surface. It must be part of the subtlety that there’s really very little in the story about how Miriam felt, or feels, for that matter, other than her initial denial that it’s the same guy at all, followed by her indication that getting better is the best revenge. These are no open wounds, but closed up, sealed scars, which only show a little. Is that the point? Or is the denial deep enough to just make it seem that way?

The division into sections must have a subtle purpose as well; I don’t quite understand the reason for this choice, other than to emphasize the two characters. Both sections are close third person – sort of close, that is, because we never get into anyone’s head. That’s an appropriate character choice for Miriam, but I’m not sure what Liam’s problem is. He’s a Nice Guy, but very cautious. Takes his shoes off before walking on dewy grass. Won’t test an electrified fence with a blade of grass. Both of which are wise precautions as an adult, but his caution was evident back when he was eighteen. He and Miriam went to get matching tattoos – M & L in “medieval manuscript letters” (ok, I know, that’s what a lot of people would call Gothic script, the hand of which varied by scribe, by the way, but for some reason it irked me) and he changed his mind after the M. Miriam saw it through, then had hers removed some years ago; a slight discoloration remains. A little on-the-nose, I think. But her reaction to Liam’s defection was perhaps the most emotionally understandable, empathetic moment of the story.

Then there’s the camel. Kokernot tells us, “[E]ver since meeting Izzy the camel in Waitsburg, I was determined to include a camel in a story.” I’m glad she accomplished her goal.

2 responses to “BASS 2015: Sarah Kokernot, “M & L” from West Branch, #76

  1. I already said I hated this story. It seemed like an attempt to do a lit fic version of Nicholas Sparks. Only two things make me think there was any substance to this story. One, as you mentioned, was the camel. The camel belonged to a movie star or something (I hate the story too much to go back and read exactly what the deal was). When L and M go to see it, they can’t summon it, perhaps signifying that their Hollywood ending is not going to materialize.

    The second thing is the ending that kind of suggests that even though they might hook up again for a while, they probably shouldn’t. Again, I hate the story too much to go back and find the actual words, but it was something like that. This might align with M’s solo trip to see the camel; he manages to see the camel, but he doesn’t have anything to feed it. It’s like his relationship to L. (Or is he L and she is M? I don’t even care.) He’s going to keep trying to nurture her, but he just doesn’t have what she needs. Unlike the camel, though, she isn’t smart enough to realize that she isn’t going to get fed there.

    So it’s not really the Sparks MFOE ending. It’s more of a sentimental ode to two people who are trying to be the right person for each other but aren’t. But I still can’t stomach it. Some literary journals warn writers about content they don’t want to see anymore because they’ve seen too much already. Second person stories, stories about writers, etc. I think stories about rape survivors would be on my list. The flashbacks to her waking up naked and being wrapped up by a blue-haired church lady seemed clumsy to me. I didn’t believe it. She had a character with too easy a life and she needed to do something bad to her to make her interesting. Rape was a solution to the writer’s problem.

    Was this how you felt reading that MMA story? I couldn’t take the parade of names and stupid wedding stuff. I couldn’t even will myself to care which one was the bride. Maybe this is why it’s good to get a mix of sexes in terms of who wrote the stories. This seemed like chick lit to me, but maybe I’m just being unfair and a dude with a short attention span who was waiting for something to explode or for boobs to pop out of a dress.

    • Oh, I didn’t realize you hated it – yeah, you did say that didn’t you (I knew you didn’t like some upcoming story but I wasn’t sure which one, didn’t want to remember so i wouldn’t be influenced). I feel better now.

      Thing is… I was dissing the camel. You got a lot more out of it than I did. In fact, it’s kind of interesting – it wasn’t there when they went as a group, but he saw it later by himself.

      But you seem to relegate the rape to a subsidiary role to the romance between M & L, that surprises me. I mean, a rape is like Chekhov’s gun, if it’s in the story, it’s got to be IN the story. I got the impression that the whole point was to show she’d moved beyond it, and that’s why it wasn’t really “in” the story. The romance wasn’t that big a deal to me – more of a second run at healing, this time for both of them since he’s just been dumped.

      I don’t see their romance continuing much beyond the roll in the wet grass, however.

      The wedding stuff just faded into the background, totally unnecessary. That’s the thing, most of the story seemed unnecessary to me. It felt like a flash, padded into a short story. At least you saw a story, one I missed.

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