BASS 2018: Kristen Iskandrian, “Good with Boys” from ZYZZYVA #109

…I wanted to explore longing from the point of view of a preteen, a child, because I think we forget that children experience desire in all kinds of powerful and devastating and transgressive ways. Jill knows who she is and what her strengths are; she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to be. From that self-assurance springs both her sense of humor and her capacity for deep hurt. I’m unendingly fascinated by where and how our two most human conditions – pain and pleasure – meet, blur, and swallow one another whole.

~~ Kristen Iskandrian, Contributor Note

Every once in a while, there’s a lot of discussion of the “unlikeable character” in fiction, how great stories can feature people you just don’t like. That’s not a problem here. Jill is one of the most likeable first-person narrators I’ve encountered. That’s interesting in itself, since I’m not typically drawn to kids (she’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 years old, still in elementary school and on a sleepover at a natural history museum). And I’m not typically drawn to girls who are so obsessed with boys. But Jill is irresistable: so self-aware, so analytical, and yet, so caught up by something out of her control:

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

I’m left wondering why she’s so obsessed with boys. Is it to compensate for what she thinks are her inadequate looks – if I have a boyfriend, I must be pretty? Is she lonely? Is this some phase all tweens go through (I was a very late bloomer)? And I’m worried for her, because she’s so young, and she has years of dealing with clueless adolescents ahead of her. I don’t want her to lose this spark, because she’s going to have a lot of failures.

Is wanting boys the same as wanting objects? Does it all get swept into the category “desire”? An object can’t want you back; an object can’t reject you. Wanting objects is much easier; maybe you can’t afford them, but they don’t slip out of your grasp and wander over to a better owner. Which, of course, is about what happens at the museum.

I tried not to look at how Esau was looking at Adam, tried not to register it as anything but boyish camaraderie. I felt a pang of something – sadness, but also panic, and desperation, like I’d been given the chance to re-enter a good dream and had messed it up somehow.

It’s a classic third-wheel situation, where at first, Adam is the third wheel, and gradually Jill comes to realize she is the third wheel. I’ve had those moments. They’re not fun. She handles it extraordinarily well, but still acknowledges her pain. Damn, kid is eleven going on thirty.

In spite of my enjoyment of this story, I find it hard to write about, for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake went and wrote an extraordinary analysis of the story, from the structure of the epiphany trope to the evolution of Jill’s desire and self-awareness, to the just-sweet-enough ending. And that’s a good thing – it’s exactly the kind of commentary I look for on all these stories. But – I’m jealous. I imagine the story as Adam, his cheeks slightly flushed as he stands next to Jake as Esau, and here I am, Jill, realizing I’m just spinning straw into straw. But, like Jill, I’m taking it well, and I’m delighted to have learned something about reading fiction, about how to do this better (and relieved to have posted this on election day when no one is going to be reading blog posts about short stories). Now, where are the butterflies?

Kristen Iskandrian: “The Inheritors” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Vladimir Kapustin: “Last Train”

The thing she reminded me of was a painting that used to hang in my parents’ living room of a girl waiting for a train that was approaching from the upper-right corner of the canvas. The girl stood with her back to the living room, relieved or frightened, who could know, by the train’s imminent arrival, with her wrists poking out from the too-short sleeves of her red jacket, one hand white-knuckling the handle of a weathered suitcase, the other stretching itself, fingers spread and pointing downward, as thought trying to pull clean of its arm…. Sad hair. The hair and the stance of protracted waiting are what brought her to mind when I thought of the painting, and what brought the painting to mind when I saw her.

We learn a great deal about these two women, coworkers at a second-hand shop called Second Chances, without ever learning their names. It didn’t bother me as I read; I didn’t even realize it until I started thinking about how to write about it. There’s a lot more we don’t know about them. They both seem to have some kind of trouble with relationships; whether this is a diagnosed condition, or just personality, is unclear. The narrator was looking for a volunteer position when she stumbled into this job (she thought the shop was some kind of shelter), and was so embarrassed to be wrong, “it seemed inevitable that I would either buy something or ask for a job.”

That may sound weird to you. It sounds weird to me, too. But it also sounds exactly like something I’d do.

The friendship between these two women seems unlikely.

She claimed as a pastime the reappropriation of words and was oblivious to how distracting it was in the midst of serious stories. She also greatly enjoyed using certain expressions and figures of speech, however wrongly, such as, for example, ad nauseam, trump card, au courant, and countless others. I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy delectable sorrow gets squandered.

In fact, a relationship with anyone, for either of these women, seems pretty unlikely.

But they try. At least, the narrator does; whether the other woman is trying, or is just there, we never truly know. The narrator is struggling with her usual relationship problems: “I wish that people, eligible friends like her, came with conversion charts. Without mile markers, material guidelines, I feel lost.” And again, I feel a lot of empathy. Where is too distant, stand-offish, unfriendly? Where is cloying, dependent, needy? They seem to differ for different people, and without boundary markers – or conversion charts – it can be damn difficult for those who are all too happy to play by the rules but have no idea what the rules are, or what the object of the game is.

Mornings, I looked hard at myself in the mirror and practiced making kind, open expressions. But then I would walk around brushing my teeth and return to the mirror and see my face as it normally was – worried and weirdly cavernous…Throughout the day I reminded myself to smile but then would do so at the wrong time…. Having a disruptive mein, I felt certain, was not conducive to making friends. This had been my problem throughout out school, throughout my life.

It’s bizarre, how alike we are, this narrator and I. My slack expression isn’t cavernous; it’s sulky and dull. Occasionally someone will assume I’m “slow” and speak to me in that sappy voice I’ve come to hate. So I remind myself to tighten things up a little – not a smile, exactly, just an alert, interested look. My “neutral expression.” The first story I published was originally titled “Maintain Neutral Expression.” And now I’m reading the story I wish I’d written instead.

You know, I have to keep reminding myself this story isn’t about me.

The narrator offers the woman a ride home a few times, and she admits she initially thought the narrator was stealing things; they laugh:

We were laughing hard now, just letting the laughter be the reason for more laughter. I felt something shift, something skeletal and real, like discovering a new vertebra and then walking differently. We were nearly friends now, and for the moment, I wasn’t questioning it.

It’s an odd relationship, they’re both odd people, and they’re odd in ways that don’t really mesh, but somehow it works out anyway:

It was okay with her that we did not share a sense of humor, that she liked to laugh at real things as they happened and I liked to laugh at imaginary and macabre things that would never happen, that she took most things seriously whereas I did not, and that these characteristics made each of us occasionally lonely and agitated around the other. I felt grateful, humbled by her forgiveness, and I did my best to leave it at that, without further aggravation for unknowingly having needed it.

The need to be grateful that someone accepts her for what she is, hits a sad note; it’s so rare for her to be appreciated. And yet, for people who are tone-deaf when it comes to getting along with people, it rings true.

They go out for a beer, and the woman talks about having been adopted, and her search for her birth parents. She’s adamant about not buying anything new – when you think about it, there really is enough stuff in the world for everyone to have some – including underwear, which is a little gross but, ok. When you think about it, being creeped out by wearing used underwear, after it’s been thoroughly washed, is a little irrational. But it’s a universal instinct. She may be the only person in history who lacks it. I find that fascinating.

One day the woman calls the narrator (I’m sorry, without names it’s the clearest way to refer to them) and, having “just had sex with someone,” says she has a squash she’s going to cook, come on over and have some. This strikes me as hilarious, partly for the casual way she drops in the sex (and who knows what it means), and partly because, well, who invites someone over for squash? It feels perfectly right for these two.

The narrator discovers her friend is a bit of a hoarder: “inches of mail on the table, birdhouses, mason jars, and hats on the counters, three ancient radios in a row … a towering stack of phone books.”

I felt as though I had walked inside of her, through the unruly glen of her instincts, past the exhausting expanse of her quirkiness, and arrived at some clearing, some place of deep wisdom, where she knew far more than I but would refrain from making me too aware of it. Here, there was a certain restraint emanating, it seemed, from the clocks and jars and paper; it was as if the items themselves owned the apartment.

I love that concept of a person being a place you arrive at after you’ve gotten past the exterior exhibits.

They chat, eat squash, watch a lot of television. When she gets home, the narrator is aware that she misses the woman, apparently something unexpected and perhaps unfamiliar.

The woman doesn’t come to work the next day; she assures the narrator by phone that she’s fine and she’ll be in the next day. And of course she isn’t. Or the next, or next. The narrator goes to her apartment and finds she’s left, given her landlord notice, left all her things saying someone would be by to pick them up.

It was here the tears started. I’d missed it – I was looking so hard at the narrator, I missed the other woman’s problem with intimacy. The exterior exhibits fooled me. Of course she had to leave, after letting someone inside. I was so wrapped up in the narrator, I missed it – and I’m pretty sure the writer planned it exactly that way.

The narrator strains to deal with this development:

I felt sick but also relieved – as though I’d had a fever and it was breaking and I could sit up and drink ginger ale, as though nausea and recuperation were happening in the same moment, the contrast its own kind of balm….she’s gone, she isn’t here, shoe’s no longer here, and if felt almost like joy; but not really.

These people are both so unable to identify emotions, I think, maybe because the feelings are rare, or because they’re so exquisitely sensitive to them, they’re overwhelming and it’s hard to tell exactly what they are, like incredibly bright light or a terribly loud sound.

The piece started with an image – the painting of the girl waiting for a train, at the top – and it ends with another one from the woman’s tv set:

…one woman facing the camera and pouring amber-colored liquid from an ornate decanter into a glass, and swirling it, and turning around slowly, deliberately, and another woman with her back to the camera, looking out a window and touching the edge of a lace curtain, framed by the window and the camera and the gaze of the other woman and waiting, it seemed, for some cue.

At least there are two people in the picture now. Even if we can’t see one’s face.

I first became aware of Kristen Iskandrian when I read “Phonics,” a flash posted on the Tin House blog last October. I was so taken with it, I added it to my “Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love” page. It’s also about a couple of outsiders, though they don’t connect, at least in the story. She has some other stories floating around online. I want to keep an eye out for her, being an outsider myself and all.

New Additions to “Online Fiction, Etc. To Read And Love” page

I’ve added four more wonderful online stories to this page – enjoy!

Flash

Watson, Douglas – – “Life on the Moon” – from Tin House blog’s Flash Fiction Fridays. A new version of “the grass is always greener.”

Iskandrian, Kristen – – “Phonics” – from Tin House blog’s Flash Fiction Fridays, 10/21/11. Perhaps the roots of a very specific brand of hate.

Hempel, Amy – – “The Orphan Lamb” – from Harper’s, September 2010 (found on Page 11, lower left). A jaw-dropping micro about what love is all about.

Short Story

Beams, Clare – “We Show What We Have Learned” from Hayden’s Ferry Review #46, Spring/Summer 2010 (sorry, this is no longer online). Zin encountered this in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011,” and fortunately it’s available online. A teacher falls apart – literally – and imparts an important and unforgettable lesson.