The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering They know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.Complete story available online at Sewanee Review
A Confederate flag (more accurately, the battle flag of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but why quibble) showed up in my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. That didn’t surprise me – I follow several journalists, and they often post stories with images of things most of my feed wouldn’t normally post – but it did surprise me to discover that the tweet was from Jake Weber. Then I saw it was in reference to his post on this story, which I hadn’t yet read. I’ve been habitually retweeting him when he posts about these stories, but…did I want to retweet this? I did, based on four layers of trust: I trust that Jake, if he uses a Confederate flag to illustrate a story, has a good story-related reason; I trust Danielle Evans, here in her third BASS, to write stories that raise thoughtful issues; I trust Roxane Gay to select stories that matter; and I trust Heidi Pitlor to publish a volume that lifts up rather than tears down. My trust was richly rewarded: this is a terrific story, and, whether he intended it or not, Jake’s inclusion of the image fit perfectly and inserted me right into the text.
I don’t often dwell on structural qualities of stories, but this one demands that I do. The technique known as in media res – starting in the middle of things – then filling in the backstory along the way, has been the standard opening for stories since the Iliad opened nine years into the Trojan war. The inciting event is what gets the rising action rising: a change in the status quo, something that generates the conflict by which the rest of the story will propel itself. Here, we open with Claire putting on the Confederate flag bikini at the urging of her boyfriend Jackson (presumably named after Stonewall rather than Andrew), and his posting the image on Facebook, without her knowledge or permission, is the inciting event.
Or is it? As we learn more about the backstory, the possibilities for inciting event open up. Maybe it’s the death of Claire’s mother, or the accident after the party, instead. Maybe it goes back to Claire and Angela as kids, growing up together in Virginia, teasing brother Aaron with a silly rhyme about “Girls go to college and get more knowledge, Boys go to Jupiter and get stupider.” Maybe the inciting incident was the Civil War, or 1787, when the newly-written Constitution stopped short of abolishing slavery in the United States. Maybe it goes back to the first slave ships in the 16th century. Maybe it goes back to the dawn of humanity, and the first person who said, “Hey, she looks different from me, she must be bad.”
In any case, the story I feared was going to be a simplistic ain’t-it-a-shame fable about the mob-like mentality of social media quickly expanded into a wide-ranging examination of many of the divisive forces we all deal with every day, right now. And that, like Jake’s tweeting of the Confederate flag, again inserts me into the story: I kept changing my mind, my off-the-cuff instinct, about what the problem was and who was wrong.
But I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The story begins with a string of what I’ll call “is-but-isn’t” markers:
▪ Puppy’s real name is Poppy, and she’s the almost-stepmother.
▪ Jackson has “in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan.”
▪ St. Petersburg in Florida has “relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December.”
▪ The bikini itself is an “awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship.”
▪ Claire sees herself, in the bikini, as “a hot someone she is not.”
▪ When her hallmate reacted to the picture, Claire “wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing.”
▪ Claire’s mom refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins though “they are neither twins nor Irish.”
▪ Claire isn’t sure about her own family, thinking of her father’s son from a prior marriage as “not a half brother, but half-a-brother.”
▪ Claire and Angela “live across the street isn’t technically true but close enough.”
▪ Claire and Aaron sleep together once but “don’t love each other that way.”
▪ Though she grows up in Virgina, her mom is from New England and her dad is from Minnesota.
Six of these is-but-isn’ts occur within the first two pages. What we call something may not be what it is. The only thing that is what it seems to be is Claire’s red-tagged file, and after her life lived in is-but-isn’ts, she scorns its clarity.
Reordering the story not only got into the conflict faster; it affected how the story morphed as I read, which greatly heightened the aesthetic and emotional experience. It’s a great example of structure adding to effect. And it’s masterful storytelling, putting it back together in this order, to keep things changing.
The story is filled with lines, seemingly casually dropped in there, that are anything but casual. Jupiter is “unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit”: astronomically, 79 moons (at present; possibly more yet to be discovered), plus the entire solar system may owe its mechanism to the joint gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn. Grief, friendship, and a tragedy years before guide the motions of Claire. We all have some Jupiter in our lives. It’s been said by people smarter than me that slavery is the original sin for the nation, keeping us in separate orbits no matter how much it costs us.
When the hallmate, Carmen, relates her side of getting a picture of a Confederate flag slipped under her door, Claire is surprised to see fear. Why should anyone fear her? She’s not going to hurt anyone. She was pissed off, sure, but that’s all it was, not a threat. Turn it around: what if Carmen had slipped a different sort of picture under Claire’s door, would Claire have understood fear then?
And that monumental phrase, just slipped in there: “In the second grade, sometime after discovering that Angela is black, Claire writes a poem about their friendship for Martin Luther King Day.” Race is something we discover, something we learn, something we’re taught. The poem becomes an icon of interracial harmony and they are dressed up in stereotypical outfits (until someone finally objects) to recite it. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Claire and Angela, besties. Then both mothers get sick.
A year later both of their mothers are sick. It starts slow, with both of them, and then quick quick quick. With Angela’s mother it is a lump, with Claire’s a vague malaise. We should have caught it sooner, Angela and Claire say to each other, over and over again, as though their mothers’ bodies are their own. At first it seems as if, even in its cruelty, the universe is being kind, giving Claire a person to suffer through this with….
Mrs. Hall has been Claire’s second mother most of her life, and Claire fears that she will lose both her mother and her other mother, but it turns out that it is worse to lose only one, when it’s the one that counts. Claire knows as soon as she feels it the first time that there is cruelty in this sentiment, so much cruelty that it surprises her, but that doesn’t change the feeling.
Is this the inciting event, or the tragedy that follows later? Or the ensuing media storm after that tragedy? I could write another thousand words on the few paragraphs about the tragedy: what Aaron “should” have done, according to whom. Who gets the benefit of the doubt. Who is heard, who is ignored. All of which feeds into the end of the story, a town hall at the college to discuss the escalating conflict, where there are “two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” How must it feel to be two rows of black people in a room full of rows of white people?
I have no doubt some will read this and nod and think it’s vindication. Some will be outraged by what is left unsaid, what is implied; the silence at the end speaks volumes. In some stories, there are no villains; here, I see no heroes, though there are a lot of wannabes. It’s a story full of potential “teachable moments” but no one stops long enough to teach or learn. There is a difference between hate and stupidity, but at some point, isn’t there a responsibility to be less stupid? Is perpetuation of stupidity inherently hateful? In his post on the story, Jake asks an interesting question: what exactly, if anything, is Claire guilty of? Evans’ Contributor Note points out “what the desire to generously and forever forgive some people costs others.” This is a story I’m going to think about for a very long time. It’s an extraordinary story for this moment.
In my final post for the 2017 edition of BASS, I wondered about diversity. Yes, there were authors and characters of varying ethnicities, cultures, classes, and sexualities, but most of the stories supported, or at least didn’t challenge, views I already held. What about some other viewpoints? This story is something of an answer. There’s room for discussion here; there’s room for teachable moments. Or we can just go on in our orbits around Jupiter, getting stupider.