I began this story in response to a discussion I had with my first-year writing students about subjects for short memoirs that tend to rely on clichés. Essays about the death of a grandparent with the top of the list. They were often boring, almost always sentimental, and one grandma or grandpa usually felt indistinguishable from the next. And yet, because I was convinced that a story about the death of a grandparent could be compelling, I challenged myself to write one. My initial plan was to write the story in the form of a long social media memorial, and although I couldn’t make this approach work, it gave life to Jan, Jules, and a story that departed from the initial prompt I’d given myself.
Marian Crotty, Contributor Note
I’m not surprised that this story began with a grandmother. While Jules, the point-of-view character, is the character I most recognize and the one who gets the most space on the page, it’s quirky grandmother Jan who grabs the attention, and gives a lift to Jules’ rather familiar problem.
Is there anything so exquisitely painful as unrequited love? Sure, there’s disease, destitution, all manners of human degradation, but to love an indifferent heart has a tenderness, a near-universality that makes it a ripe centerpiece for fiction. That this is a relationship between two women doesn’t really matter. Love is, after all, love. And not-love is not-love.
My grandmother had fucked-up ideas about love. This was something anyone who spent about five minutes with her understood. She had been married three times – once to my grandfather and twice to a guy named David who I remember as a quiet gray-bearded man with a motorcycle but who had broken into Jan’s duplex and set fire to the rattan patio set that she’d always kept in her sunroom. When I asked if she’d been afraid of this guy, she shrugged. “Sure. Sometimes.” In her mind, love was an undertaking bet required constant vigilance and bravery….
But when it came to Erika , the girl who had recently broken my heart, after what was admittedly just one relatively chaste summer together, Jan was my ideal audience – sympathetic, almost always available, and the only person in my life who thought that getting back together with Erika was both advisable and likely to happen.
The logical part of my brain thought the more likely explanation was that Erika had only ever gotten together with me in the first place out of boredom and convenience (we spent the summer working together at her frozen yogurt shop called Yotopia!) and now that FSU was back for the fall semester, it embarrassed her to be with a high school student. Sometimes, though, in the midst of one of Jan’s musings, I could almost convince myself that there had been a misunderstanding and that if I could just show Erika I was a mature and attractive person, she would, if not see that she had made a mistake, at least consider making out with me in secret.
“When it comes to love,” Jan said, “you shouldn’t have regrets. I have regrets, and I can tell you it sucks. I never should have divorced your grandfather.”
The three generations of women in this family – grandmother Jan, Jules, and Jules’ mother – have all had bad experiences with love. What Jules really needs to hear is: get as far away from Erika as you can, and it will eventually fade. Yes, it will – I promise (I’ve been through this four or five times, and not all when I was young, either; it’s really hard to walk away, but it’s the only thing that will help). But it’s the little maybe that makes her follow Jan’s advice: act happy and engaged in life, wear reavealing clothes, make up an imaginary girl who’s crushing on you, find ways to touch Erika now and then. The first part of that isn’t a bad idea. The rest, well… Jules is as surprised as I was when it seemed to work, and she and Erika finally get it on.
But did it work, or was it something else? Almost a goodbye present? Because Erika later tells her it’s not going to happen again, and things get a little more complicated after that.
I’d initially thought of this story as one of broken trust. Jan’s good husband, a decent guy who sometimes committed minor infractions, finally took her up on her threat to divorce him for one of those, breaking a trust that she could complain and life would go on. Her crazy husband obviously broke the trust most of us have in our husbands to not set our furniture on fire. Mom broke Jules’ trust by telling her social worker boyfriend about the breakup, leading him to attempt to console Jules, as clumsy but well-meaning do-gooders are wont to do (a wise do-gooder would have kept his mouth shut until a good opportunity presented itself). And of course Erika broke Jules’ trust, though Jules doesn’t realize it until things get complicated.
But then the story ends with Jules planning to go to a Halloween party at Erika’s house, a party she heard about from a co-worker. She knows she shouldn’t go, but Jan doesn’t try to stop her. I suspect Jan knows she’ll go no matter what, so she might as well be on the kid’s side. It’s when she refers to the box of Halloween costumes that I freak out – oh, no, not the dead baby costume!
This was a pleasant, entertaining read, kind of bittersweet for those of us who remember what it was like and feel some sympathy for Jules. But a lot of it just seems a little off. Jan is a little over the top; the Halloween connection – three times! From Jan’s once wearing an inappropriate costume to a child’s Halloween party, to her working in a Halloween store, to the Halloween party that continues Jules’ obsession – seems overplayed; maybe it’s a reference to fear, horror associated with love? This recycling maybe goes with Jules continuing her own cycle of what Miss Manners (I think; I can’t find the reference) once called getting every last ounce of pain out of a breakup. I’m not curious at all about what happens with her, but I wouldn’t mind reading more about Jan, over-the-top or not. I’d like to see her through her own eyes, rather than through Jules’.
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Other takes on this story can be found at:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Crotty’s “Halloween” treats the idea of love equaling suffering like the two-bit trailer-park philosophy it is, and it paints it with a comic brush rather than a dramatic one.”
Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, ‘A&P.’”