Pushcart XLIII: Claire Vaye Watkins, “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” from Granta #139

I spent the morning on myspace looking at pictures of my dead ex-boyfriend. The phrase my dead ex-boyfriend is syntactically ambiguous you can’t tell from it whether this boyfriend and I were together when he died. We were not. We’d been broken up for about two years. We were together for three then apart for two then he died. He died in a car crash that’s how he died.
His name was Jesse but in the years between our breakup and his death he went by Jesse Ray meaning his new friends and his new girlfriend called him Jesse Ray. I never called him Jesse Ray. No one from our old group ever called him that. We all grew up together don’t talk about him much now maybe because we don’t know what to call him.

Complete story available online at Granta

I’m not sure if this is fiction or memoir. Vulture refers to it as autofiction, a kind of blurring of the two genres; if you google the term, you’ll find it’s been around since the 70s but is resurging thanks to Knausgaard. I don’t quite get the distinction between autofiction and the “thinly disguised autobiography” which has been around much longer, or, for that matter, the Roman à clef. Given my annoyance with embroidering the truth and still calling it nonfiction, I’m fine with the “based on a true story” approach. But Granta calls it fiction; here in Pushcart, it’s ambiguous, since it’s listed in the Index as fiction, but the notation is missing in the text itself.

Why does it matter to me? I’m not sure, other than I don’t do well with uncertainty. Would I read it differently one way or the other? Not really. Maybe the problem is one of displacement: I can’t really get a handle on it, and I’m focusing on genre as a reason. But enough navel-gazing.

The story is about the narrator’s relationship with the chaotic Jesse, who has “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” – the name of a punk-rock band, by the way; the header image above is from one of their videos – tattooed across his collarbones. “I don’t like sweet boys. I liked filthy weirdos who scared me a little and I still do”, she tells us, as we hear about their time tog’ether, he returned from college, she about to depart. “There is no story – he was there and then he was gone.” She found out about his death from her sister, who found out about it on Myspace.

Oddly, it’s Myspace that feels to me the center of gravity in this piece. Odd, because it’s such a vibrant portrait of a guy who lived on the edge, full of enticing details about sex and self-destruction and, yes, life. And odd because I never had a Myspace page; I only briefly used Facebook, back before it became a marketing tool, so why should I be interested? Maybe because Watkins puts it front and center in her opening: “The uncooperative cadence of the phrase my myspace perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of the early oughts when our story begins.” I don’t think it’s by accident that she changes the more typical “aughts”, meaning the first decade of a century, to “oughts” in a story about a guy who didn’t do oughts.

The narrator – be it a fictional stand-in for Watkins, or a totally fictional character – effectively expresses this intense connection, a connection that breaking up and moving on did not lessen. Is this the product of an intense relationship? Or is it more a reaction to the circumstances, the first loss of a peer? Or maybe it’s displacement, a kind of aggregate mourning connected to the death of her mother, who died while she was at school, and her husband’s former girlfriend, who died in Bolivia doing field work, all the dead bodies unseen, leaving an open wound.

Toward the end, the narration changes and the writer addresses Jess; at this point, the language sometimes becomes chaotic, with run-on sentences and just thoughts pouring out.

Jesse, I wish you were here. America is violent and queer as fuck. The snowbanks are rising and every morning I drive over a frozen river past a mosque an elementary school this week sent a letter threatening a great time for patriotic Americans. I pass a kid who looks like you walks like you did I pass a sculpture by Maya Lin called Wave Field which is like a bunch of waves made of grass covered in snow so like a bunch of bumpy snow. Pretty cool. I drive to a strip mall and smoke weed in my SUV and do rich bitch yoga with these fierce old dykes and Indian grandmas and public ivy sorority alumni and other basic traitorous cunts and for $20 each we all come out an hour later looking like we just got fucked all of them my sisters.

In my quick tour of the internet looking for comments on this story, I see that those who mention it, whether they encountered it in Granta (it was in the Best Young American Novelists of 2017 issue, so it got a pretty wide spread) or elsewhere, were extremely impressed. I feel old.

Claire Vaye Watkins: “Man-O-War” One Story #140, September 2010

“We used to stay up all night, just listing the places you could take a girl in a city. One of us guys would say, ‘To the park.’ And another would say, ‘A museum.’ And another would say, ‘The movies.’ That was our favorite, the movies. Whenever somebody said the movies, we’d all together say, ‘The movies,’ all slow. Like a goddamn prayer.”

A lovely story full of description. You’ll know Nevada, rocks, and desert heat by the time you’re done. Harris, a retired miner, is out on a dry Nevada lakebed scavenging fireworks left behind from the Fourth of July. His dog, Milo, finds a pregnant teenager named Magda. He takes her home with him (the nearest clinic is hours away) and takes care of her. He intends to take her back to her home, but she convinces him to let her spend the night, and the next day, to go swimming. They talk about their lives: his ex-wife lost a baby and they never conceived another; she moved away and now has a nineteen-year-old. Magda won’t say who the father of her child is, other than it isn’t her Mormon boyfriend; something dark is hinted at. Harris sets of the fireworks he found, including a large Man-O-War, and tells her the minerals used to make the different colors. He starts to think in terms of Magda staying with him to have her baby: “Though he knew better, deep down in the bedrock of himself, he couldn’t help it. He thought, She will need a stroller. She will need a car seat. How the barren cling to the fertile. We, he thought, we will need a crib.

Magda’s father shows up and takes her home. The scene is written exquisitely: he comes to the porch, doesn’t ask about his daughter but says he is hunting and shows Harris the gun he’s brought. Then he goes into the house and comes out with Magda. By the way he is touching her, Harris realizes the father is indeed the father of the baby, but Magda does not ask for sanctuary, in fact looks at him “pityingly” when he says she wants to stay. The last few paragraphs are devastating: Harris “loses his shit” as the author says in her One Story Q&A.

I did have a problem with the last paragraph. It refers to “levanta” and I had to go back and look for this. I only found one reference, where Harris dreamed Magda was saying this. Apparently it means “get up”. But I had to do some research to learn that (and I had a couple of years of Spanish in college). Also, “the Hastings brothers” are mentioned, and again I had to go back and find that. I have a habit of writing characters’ names on the front pages, since I do forget them, especially when the names are only mentioned once, but I didn’t write these because they were mentioned in a conversation as people from Harris’ past, the kids he hung out with when he was Magda’s age. Their names just didn’t seem that important, though the memory, partly quoted above, was, of course. To encounter these things at the end was distressing, since the last paragraph is quite beautiful but the meaning and impact was obscured by not-total-recall of these two things quickly mentioned.

Still, it was quite a beautiful story of someone having a second chance and losing it, seeing his possibilities as he tries to help Magda see her own, from different ends of their lives.