Pushcart XLI: Emma Duffy-Comparone, “The Devil’s Triangle” from New England Review, 36.4

Her parents always said they’d dig their own graves if anything happened to their children, so when her sister Claire disappeared on a camping trip in the White Mountains, Elsie kept an eye on things. She brought them groceries. Made mushroom risottos and bean enchiladas and coconut lentil soups and made her father sit at the table until he ate three bites. Took her mother to cafés downtown to drink cappuccino and play honeymoon whist. Signed her father up for beach yoga and dragged him to the ocean at sunrise with bamboo mats. Researched imaginal psychotherapy and psychodynamic insight therapy and expressive therapy and brief solution focused therapy and called psychologists and psychiatrists and support groups and chauffeured her mother to initial consultations. “I don’t need some Wellesley cunt taking notes while I play in a sandbox,” her mother would say, sinking into Elsie’s Volkswagen, clenching her purse, and Elsie would drive home and call someone else.
It had been a year of that. Still they knew nothing, and Elsie lived in that nothing, roaming the endless corridors of it, the silence unspeakable and huge.

We all grieve in our own ways, and here we watch three members of this family carve their own paths. The grief is doubly painful because Claire disappeared without a trace. If burying a child is agony, what circle of hell is not knowing?

Mom fades from the story as the focus turns to sisters Elsie and Mika. They have the extra twist of the knife as well: they’re triplets. What do you call triplets with a missing member, fate undetermined? That very question comes up and further contrasts the paths the two remaining sisters are taking through pain.

The three were living together in a house before Claire’s disappearance. After, Mika sublet her room and headed for Florida to party until she couldn’t feel it any more. The story follows Elsie, the soul of responsibility, on her trip down there, but it’s really about their differences, interactions, and what we do to survive the unsurvivable. I found the story well-designed, with a guinea pig that manages to stay just this side of maudlin and a yacht party with a variety of meaningful interactions about moving on – from bad relationships, from dead relationships, from nowhere.

The party turns nasty, but maybe indicates a kind of hitting-bottom; if either can plant her feet on the ocean floor, she might be able to break the waves and breathe. But we’re left not knowing, the only way to end the story.

This is the second story I’ve seen from Duffy-Comparone; the first, “The Zen Thing” from One Story, and the first story in Pushcart 2015, was also an intricately-tangled family tale.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Emma Duffy-Comparone, “The Devil’s Triangle” from New England Review, 36.4

  1. Thanks so much for realizing this is the same person who wrote “The Zen Thing,” which I also liked.

    I have long, side-track thoughts on this story that I may post on my own blog, because they’re big-picture aesthetics of fiction kinds of questions. But this is a strong story. One thing I think it does extremely well is limit the amount of Claire (the dead one) we see in flashback. It’s like how a horror movie is scarier if they only show the monster in small, teasing doses.

    Ultimately, I don’t know if Mika’s approach or Elsie’s approach was “better” for getting over it. Maybe neither, since they end up in the same place at the end. Mika says “I’m here,” but then again, so is Elsie. It’s interesting that Mika, who needed to take off to go on her path of healing through self-abasement, needs to have Elsie with her at the end before she can finish her travels along that path.

    • I think both approaches might be “better” for them – Elsie’s hyperresponsibility and focus on taking care of others, Mika’s abandon. Even though their genes are the same, they’re different people. And for that matter, Mom, with her stoic hardness hiding worlds of pain.

      That last line is a killer. “I’m here” even though Claire isn’t, you haven’t lost me, too (I think Claire is front and center throughout, though you’re right, the abduction is wisely underplayed, like the guinea pig). Elsie, now the only sister left in their apartment, goes to save the sister she stands a chance of finding, which is her pathway to healing. Being found – I’m here – is Mika’s. Each needs the other to get through it.

      I hope you do write more on it.

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