BASS 2017: Leopoldine Core, “Hog for Sorrow” from Bomb #136

Kit had never had a lot of friends. But she’d had a few that she didn’t have now. Becoming a whore is like getting very sick, she thought. You don’t want people and they don’t want you. Only she did want people. A little.

Complete story available online at BOMB

I suppose it is, at that.

And of course, these women surprise you. They aren’t stupid or tough or whatever it is prostitutes are supposed to be. Lucy went to Sarah Lawrence to study dance. Kit did a year at Bennington studying writing (or not studying much of anything, as it turned out), which is a pretty terrifying career path for a writer to think up. It’s too bad Kit didn’t become a writer – who hasn’t bought the pencils and leather journal, the software, the desk or the quilt or dictionary or whatever thing you think will make the difference only to discover that what makes you a writer is writing and that’s the hard part – she could’ve been a good one, with her insightful observations. The next best thing for her is to end up in a story.

I reread this story several times – to be honest, I didn’t get much from it the first time through – and kept uncovering interesting threads. Dance and writing are among them. “Lucy was a silly dancer,” Kit tells us, “but in the way only someone who is confident of their sexiness can be.” When asked what studying dance was like, Lucy – described as “plump” – says, “It was like being abused. Routinely.” And now she’s a hooker. Talk about a hog for sorrow. For all artists, criticism is a constant force.

And again I see a dichotomy being outlined, in several areas. Animals / people: Lucy’s dog doesn’t like to see her eat or masturbate (“He doesn’t want to see you become an animal” says Kit; I’m telling you, this woman needs to be a writer, or a therapist). Men / women: Kit’s john wants her to lie still on the bed while he jacks off, “like I was interfering with my potential hotness by living”, as every woman who’s ever fretted over an extra two pounds, or forced herself into stiletto slingbacks, knows; not to mention the freedom to leave socks all over the place instead of being the one who’s supposed to clean up someone else’s socks. Friends / acquaintances: a continuum rather than a dichotomy, played out in the form of the little dance people do when they think they might become friends under complicated circumstances. Here it’s complicated not only by their jobs, but by Kit’s sexual attraction to Lucy, an attraction she maneuvers into a girl-on-girl for a customer, only to discover what it’s like to be a john.

Lucy’s kisses were muscular with no feeling behind them. She broke into breathy counterfeit moans and Kit cringed. Their teeth clicked. Kit felt a bit the way men must feel, she supposed, when they realize that the prostitute they’ve purchased is miserable to be near them. She wasn’t sure why she had expected it to be any other way. I’m just another creep who wants to touch her, she thought. A little creep hiding behind a bigger one.

In her Contributor Note, Core says she started with just dialog between two women, then figured out a story to go around it. I’d say she figured out several, and managed to weave them all together. I’m glad I took the time to reread; I don’t know what was wrong with me the first time. Maybe it was too much all at once.

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Pushcart XLI: Melissa Pritchard, “The Carnation Milk Palace” from Ecotone #19

Was she beautiful, or was she only someone apart?
—Edith Wharton, “New Year’s Day”
 
Fourteen-year-old Charlotte fished the invitation from between unpaid bills—PG&E electric, her dermatologist, Dr. Gass—and a lapsed subscription to Ladies Home Journal. On the engraved card, cartoon bubbles fizzed from a champagne glass, bumped around the words: Join Glen and Stibsy! Ring in 1964!
The Haldens were the richest people her parents knew.

Complete story available online at Ecotone

I haven’t read the Wharton story quoted in the epigraph, but a few moments of Googling tells me it’s about an encounter at a New Year’s Eve party that, while quite innocent, fuels devastating rumors about one of the participants who prefers to keep the details private. In plot and tone, the two stories are quite different, but I can see the relevance of the quote to this coming-of-age story. Most of the characters keep things private: Charlotte’s mother goes to her grave preserving an open secret, and still regrets that she didn’t marry the rich boy; Dad is a great dancer, but spends his days doing probate law; Charlotte is put in private Catholic school, but the family is strongly atheistic.

On a metafictional note, the venue in which the story appears has great relevance as well. The mission statement for the journal Ecotone:

Ecotone’s mission is to publish and promote the best place-based work being written today….writing and art that reimagine place, and our authors interpret this charge expansively. An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.

This story involves three biomes: the rich Haldens in their Carnation Milk Palace, the socially and economically disadvantaged Duffys, and Charlotte’s family right in the middle. Sort of a cross-section of America’s supposedly permeable class system. And Charlotte, traversing the ecotone on either side of her as needed. While she’s enchanted by Moira, her only visit to her home was uncomfortable. The transition up is much easier for her. What she may not realize is that the Haldens would regard her with the same suspicion and distaste as her parents have for the Duffys, but for the class-driven power they have to keep her from bothering them beyond an obligatory appearance at the annual party.

Charlotte’s relationship with Moira interest me far more than her brief aborted fumbling with the rich college boy on the coats in the Carnation Milk Palace, just above the ballroom where her parents were willing to humiliate her in their effort to feel beautiful for one evening.

Although she was outwardly docile, Charlotte’s inner life teemed….By contrast, Moira Duffy’s inner and outer lives were interchangeable. A willful bloom flashing up from the parched, rocky soil of her family, she intended to be a famous dancer in Paris or New York. Not ballet, deformity disguised as grace, but free, natural movement, modern dance. Her heroines were Isadora Duncan and Joan of Arc. Both, she told Charlotte, suffered unforgettable deaths, both stood for something.

Is Charlotte’s fascination with Moira because she is beautiful, or because she is someone apart? Whichever, Moira’s apparent openness (which, of course, might be the artifice of someone afraid of rejection) echoes the public/private self theme I hear mentioned in connection with the Wharton story. Charlotte’s mom went to her deathbed never knowing the secret she kept was long known. Moira is who she is no matter who likes it or doesn’t; she has nothing to hide. Charlotte has nothing to hide, either, and she’s trying very hard to hide that.

I find it interesting that the story gives us a glimpse of the future Charlotte, as well as her mom and dad and a school friend who doesn’t appear in the present of the story at all. Yet we don’t hear anything about Moira’s future, not even that they lost touch. That’s what stuck with me: what happens to Moira?

When she was sure he had gone, Charlotte stood, pulled up her torn tights, straightened her dress. Sitting back on edge of the bed, the room still whirling a little, she reached with her fingertips, among the richly textured coats, mink, camel’s hair, velvet, until she felt the cool, tight coils of black Persian lamb.

But at heart it’s Charlotte’s coming of age story. She encounters her first sexual moment, abbreviated as it is, with trembling. Is the trembling fear? Eagerness? Awe? I love the moment after, the burrowing for what I read as the tactile reassurance of her mother’s coat. The curly fur speaks to her impending adulthood; the rooting for mother, to the childhood she still has not fully left.