Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Leslie Pietrzyk, “Stay There” from Southern Review, Spring 2018

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Anything in the world can change in a single instant. See? Here I am, now alone. Yet here I am, still bound to that same ache of nothing I started with, tonight and every night. I close my eyes. That. That’s the thing that will not change.

At first, I thought this was going to be another woman-turns-40-and-self-destructs stories. And it does start out that way, but it goes farther and a lot deeper. That’s why I’m not leading off with a quote from the “Oh-my-god-I’m-almost-40” sex scene that opens the story, but with where it ends up after some emotional mileage. Stylistically, it reminds me of Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” or Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles”.

Our protagonist is Lexie, photographer and teacher – oh, make that former teacher, since she got fired for having a relationship with a student, Tay, who has these turquoise eyes she can’t resist and who makes her forget she’s almost forty – attending her own exhibition/party. She gets some surprising, and surprisingly devastating, news at the party. How she reacts is the core of the story.

It’s a story about relationships. The importance of relationships, how to have non-relationships, and how to ruin any real relationships that might crop up in spite of yourself. Lexie learns that syllabus, as all children learn all human skills, from her parents, primarily her prominent politician-father, now determinedly estranged. When the gallery owner tells her, “Selling art is about relationships,” she hears her father telling her politics is all about relationships; “…not until college did I realize politics is about power. Likely art is, too.”

…. I glance into the tiny mirror I’ve found in my purse. A network of lines etch the corners of my eyes and lips; I see crevices. Another thought to push away, and I start up the stairs, heels clacking. I think of when I was growing up, watching my father practice his smile in the bathroom mirror, smiling over and over, tilting his head this way and that, as I timed him with the second hand on his wristwatch. Ten seconds, twenty, a minute. “Smiling’s hard work,” he would say, “and takes muscle. You’ve got to build muscle if you want anything in life.” I thought he knew everything. It was exciting that his picture was everywhere, the smile I knew from the mirror, his famous smile. Now he’s dead to me. I rouse the muscles of my own face, forming a smile. And I stride up the stairs to this party.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in all the neuro moocs I’ve taken is that real smiles generated from emotion, and fake smiles generated by conscious command, follow two different nerve pathways. It’s why smiles are so hard to fake, why when I try to give a reassuring or acknowledging smile in a situation fraught with social anxiety, I’m often told I look like I’m grimacing in pain. I’ve improved my fake smiles, but Lexie’s politician-father has mastered it to the point of practicing to keep his smiling muscles strong. This is where she learned to smile.

This is also where she learned relationships. And where she learned stealth, because she didn’t know her parents had been separated a year before her father announced he was running off with someone younger, but that was the day before 9/11. “Can’t buy timing like that, and, lucky for him, my father’s scandal got danced right off the front page.” For the public, maybe. Is this when her father became dead to her? We know she last saw him about ten years ago at her sister’s wedding, but that was unplanned, since he wasn’t invited but just showed up, right in time to take her place in giving the toast.

By the way, her name isn’t Lexie any more. That was a childhood name, used by her friend Shannon, another relationship that’s more habit than connection at this point. And it’s Shannon who accidentally breaks devastating news to Lexie at the exhibition. Shannon who shows up with an idiot boyfriend who collects “political art” that turns out to be art by politicians (“I bought a George W. Bush at a charity auction”), but he’ll settle for art by a politician’s daughter in a pinch. Shannon who, when Lexie tells the idiot boyfriend “Basically, he’s dead to me” to dissuade him from using her as a pathway to her father, says, “You haven’t heard?”

My heart thumps, maybe loud enough to muffle her words. Once I hear what she says something will change. It’s one of those before/after moments that life whacks you with. Shannon is the one who drove through a hurricane to rescue me from the bad boyfriend’s apartment, who picked me instead of Lisa Long to co-edit the yearbook with her, who taught me quadratic equations and dragged my ass through algebra. The one who, a long time ago, knew everything about me and loved me anyway. Why did she turn into this stranger?

Lexie takes off, with Tay and his turquoise eyes in tow, because who doesn’t run from bad news. But wait… why is it bad news, if he’s been dead to her for years? It’s the end of possibility, not of reconciliation, but of apology, of acknowledgement, of seeing justice done. And maybe, just a little grief for the relationship that, strange as it was, was central for a long time. I understand that. When I got a letter announcing my ex-husband’s death, the ex-husband I hadn’t seen or talked to since the day in court, who I’d gone to significant trouble to assure I wouldn’t see or talk to, I threw the letter across the room. I didn’t know a letter could be thrown; that flat surface, light weight, all that air resistance! I didn’t consciously intend to throw it. Yet my arm heaved, and the letter ended up in a distant corner, alarming the cat who I hastened to reassure. I get it.

Lexie’s road trip with Tay takes a strange turn at a truck stop with a convenience store he’s convinced has great beef jerky when she reveals what she wants from him. Is this what she’s wanted all along, or is this a product of the night, the news, the flight? He reveals his own secret, then goes in search of that beef jerky. Enter a stranger, looking for the hooker named he’s engaged by app for $100 he’ll never see again. After a moment of fear, this leads to the most telling scene of the story:

He presses his hand up onto the window, palm flat and wide, sideways, fingers splayed. His eyes settle and fix on a point in the distance. Even so, my heart jumps across my chest. I’m statue still, though maybe I should grab for my purse or my phone. Just in case. Instead I think about Crystal and her hundred dollars. She’s probably some guy in Nigeria. She probably doesn’t exist at all. I think about a man, this man, lonely enough to send money to a girl who doesn’t exist, though surely part of his brain had been warning him no.
I cautiously rest my own hand up against the window where the man’s palm is, spreading my fingers to meet his. I’m startled to hit smooth glass, expecting his rough, warm skin, and I wonder how his rough, warm skin might press against mine, might push into the deep me of me. I’ll never see this sad man again.
All these years it was so easy, saying, my father’s dead to me, because he wasn’t dead.
Feelings explode across my mind, flaring like fireworks. Why we persist in loving things that don’t exist.

The surprise at touching a barrier instead of flesh, the confusion about what it means to connect, the recognition of another lost, lonely person without self-recognition, the broken grammar of that last sentence; this is the award-winning paragraph. This is Liv finding the Venetian candies; this is Alice relating (maybe) the underwear adventure the next day. No, the stories aren’t really that alike, it’s my reaction that connects them. And that isn’t even the climax.

The title comes from a Rumi quote mentioned in the story: “Close your eyes, fall in love, stay there.” Lexie has no trouble with the first two; it’s the last one she finds tricky. She’s almost diagnosable. The persistent feeling of emptiness; intense, unstable relationships; fear of abandonment; impulsive, self-destructive actions; uncertain self-image. I wonder what’s going to happen to her in the parking lot of that truck stop, abandoned by everyone. Not the best place to choose to stay.

2 responses to “Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Leslie Pietrzyk, “Stay There” from Southern Review, Spring 2018

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