Pushcart XL: Katie Coyle, “Fear Itself” from One Story, #192

On a trip with their U.S. History class to a presidential wax museum in a nearby city, three girls make up a game they call Categories, the rules of which are perfectly simple. First, one girl suggests a type of person or thing—Beatle Wife, Pride and Prejudice Sister, Greek Goddess, Mode of Fortune Telling. Second, each girl tries to identify one another within said category. That’s it. That’s the extent of the game. As they play, one girl feels like crying and another feels like screaming and another wants to stop playing Categories altogether, because no one wants to be the Yoko Ono, and no one wants to be the Mary Bennett. But they never officially quit. They are sixteen. They’ve been best friends since grade school. They are Kara (The Mean One), Ruthie (The Funny One), and Olive (The Smart One). All three are mean and funny and smart, but Kara is probably the most of each.

I’ve always had trouble understanding the term “frenemies” which is odd, since I’ve had quite a few though I didn’t realize it until later. It seems to be particularly descriptive of teenage girls, but it’s been hanging around government and corporate offices, around human civilization, for millenia and thus comprises a significant subset of literary tropes from Shakespeare to Austen to the latest YA novel. In the same way twisted love is more interesting than true love, or unhappy families make better drama than happy ones, devious underpinnings make stories of friendship far more intriguing. It’s possible that’s even why people have frenemies to begin with.

But that isn’t Kara’s reason. She simply has no where else to go.

She is sick to death of her only two friends. She used to have more; they used to be a group of six or seven. But when high school started, the other girls drifted away to drink beers in the basements of thick-necked football players, to give blowjobs in the back of mini-vans. They didn’t invite Kara or Ruthie or Olive to join and the remaining three never figured out how to invite themselves. Now they’re stuck with one another.

The style could be thought of as somewhere in the dark humor or Gothic range. I’m always at a disadvantage with dark humor; I found the narration stiff and distant, at times overshadowing the interactions of the girls, which was my primary interest. As a stylistic choice, it ties the story in with old horror stories. The horror-story elements that form the plot structure, both the wax FDR and the school rehearsals of The Crucible, clearly connected supernatural horror and the more prosaic horror of adolescence. I kept wondering why teenage girls don’t want to be Yoko Ono. I mean, when I was a teenager, there was a good reason, but haven’t we moved on since then?

The emotional readings of the girls was very successful. Who can’t understand what it is to tear someone down to feel good, to be jealous of the first one to find romance (if that’s what it is). Sociologists and psychologists will tell you a triad is the most unstable of groups, constantly trying to break down to an in-group dyad and an out-group monad. But in losing the outgroup member, the frenemies would also lose their primary means of building themselves up. It’s very tricky business, fragile-ego management.

Then there’s the idea of coming to the rescue that shows up twice: once as a flashback, and then again in the climax, which involves a blowtorch and reenactment of a scene from The Crucible. In each case, one has to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease – or if maybe the defense of the other is really a defense of self, which entails defense of the frenemy relationship. After all, if you don’t have an out-group to kick around, how can you make yourself feel better?

Although the story isn’t available online, you can find Hannah Tinti’s Q&A with Coyle, as well as her own comments on the piece, at the One Story site.

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