BASS 2019: Ella Martinsen Gorham, “Protozoa” from New England Review #39.4

I saw that my children and their friends documented much of their lives on the screens of phones and laptops. I began to think of them as inhabiting two worlds: the touchable, physical world and the digital world. They slipped back and forth between them. This notion gave rise to the story “protozoa.“
I was interested in a girl of thirteen navigating the two worlds. I wanted to capture the moment she decides to shed her childhood self and become more provocative.

Ella Martinsen Gorham, Contributor Note

I’ve never been a parent. Maybe that makes me a poor reader for this story, but maybe it makes me an ideal reader, since I don’t have any guilts to hide or hard-learned lessons to impose. I have been a teenager, and again, maybe that makes me an ideal reader for Noa, or maybe it makes me a terrible reader, since my own experience can’t help but color my perception of hers. Keep all that in mind while I indulge in a little speculative psychology here (not to be confused with actual psychology involving research and understanding of all the parameters involved).

Young adolescents, barely post-pubescent, have two important relationship groups: peers, and family. Adolescence is about growing up, growing away from the nest, shifting from family to peers. The primary force among peers is popularity, conformity, fitting in, being liked and admired. The primary force among family at this time, unlike in early childhood, is the need to distance and differentiate oneself (I seem to recall this is from actual psychology), to test limits, to move towards independence by relying on one’s own judgment rather than acquiescence to parental rules.

Gorham’s story hits both of these. And Noa’s only, what, 13 or 14? This is only round one. How does anyone survive adolescence?

Wren and Annaliese were still preoccupied with complex cake recipes. They fastened back their sleek hair with headbands tricked out in enormous, furred pompoms. To Noa they seemed all parts light, which was good if you could meet them there, in the light, with the horses. Noa had come to feel like another species around them, a graceless mouth-breather. Their distaste for Paddy held no sway with her.
Someday they might understand how it was necessary to take a risk for a boy. Yes, she was afraid. That was the point.

We start with Noa’s popularity with Wren and Annaliese in direct conflict with her need to test limits via her attraction to Paddy. Don’t parents hope their kids will hang around with good kids who will be a good influence on them, bring them back to the light when they start to wander towards the dark side? That doesn’t happen here. Noa finds other friends, friends who will understand what she’s doing, support and encourage it. That means Aurora.

Aurora only exists for Noa on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform it is, how would I know, I’m still blogging for pete’s sake). She’s only existed for Noa for two weeks. But Noa’s all in.

The most exotic thing was that Aurora went out as she pleased any night of the week, hopped into a hired car and roamed the hills above the Sunset Strip and the bluffs in Pacific Palisades. Noa’s favorite picture of Aurora was taken on those Bluffs. With crazy eyes she pretended she was about she jumped off the edge of an overlook, like the ocean was a trampoline she could bounce on.
….It was their secret ritual to watch each other cry. Aurora said that sharing tears was a high and a release. In Japan, she said, entire rooms full of grown men bawled together.

I quite enjoyed reading about rui-katsu, the Japanese crying ritual mentioned here. But they’ve got nothing on a good old-fashioned Pentecostal prayer meeting, where everyone cries. My problem was always that I couldn’t stop when everyone else did. I made a lot of youth ministers very uncomfortable. Given that I was experiencing my first depressive swing, maybe they should’ve paid more attention instead of telling me “it’s time to calm down now.” The point is, I can appreciate the desire to cry together.

Noa’s bid for popularity – fame amongst her peers – is tied in with her attraction to Paddy. He runs a semi-anonymous feed that “roasts” various people via rap numbers using pseudonyms. Noa wants to be roasted. She indulges in a little sex play hoping to be roasted. She’s afraid of being roasted. She’s afraid of Paddy, of sex. But, as she’s said, fear is the point. Testing limits. How much fear before she pulls away? What will the roast-fame be like?

Predictably, it goes sideways. She assures Callan, another roastee, that “It’s a little different when he teases me.” He laughs, as do we all, but at least we laugh sadly, kindly.

In the last few hours Aurora had found online a new favorite person, Rileyyy424….Aurora had liked and commented on all of Rileyyy424’s posts. There was nothing special about that girl.

Paddy is beyond her reach. Aurora disappears. But Noa puts up a video of her crying, and becomes an internet sensation. Sort of the visual @SoSadToday.

And her parents? As Jake Weber points out in his analysis, they’re split between Helicopter Dad and Free Range Mom. As I said, I’ve never been a parent, so I won’t judge. It is, after all, the primary conflict for adults as well as teens (and societies, for that matter): safety vs freedom.

Jake’s post makes a couple of other observations I found added a lot to what was, for me, otherwise a routine story. Mom and Dad own a restaurant, where Mom is the chef specializing in rabbit dishes. His interpretation of this never would have occurred to me, but once I read it, I realized I know of two movies where an adult woman kills a child’s bunny (Joanne Woodward beat Glenn Close to it). There’s something to this bunny-killing thing. Then looking for an online image took it to another level: bunnies, stripped, exposed, butchered, roasted.

Jake also did some research on protozoa, Paddy’s nickname for Noa (whose given name is not discussed, but apparently is very popular in Israel, meaning motion. Or maybe her parents just like the sound of it, or it’s short for something else). Given my interest in biology, I’m embarrassed that I knew nothing about protozoas other than they cause some nasty human diseases, so I hit Wikipedia and came across heterotrophs vs autotrophs. Protozoa are heterotrophs, meaning they must consume other organisms for energy. Autotrophs make their own food, such as plants that use sunlight and water to make energy compounds. It’s all about the food chain: every food chain starts with a producer, an autotroph. The heterotrophs feed off autotrophs and off other heterotrophs. And I think of Aurora and Paddy, Autotrophs R Us, and all the heterotrophs feeding off them.

Yes, Noa survives all this. But this was all kid stuff. What happens when the sex comes with bodily fluids, potential infections, and pregnancy, and the Lyft rides are replaced by friends, and the flask of booze turns into bottles and other substances of questionable origin. What kind of videos will Noa post to get through those problems?