BASS 2015: Sarah Kokernot, “M & L” from West Branch, #76

In the never-ending list of awful things that could happen to people each second, Miriam’s awful thing was so small that she could render it insignificant. But whenever she thought it had disappeared completely, it would come back as clear and uncomfortable as a hot light on her face.

In her Contributor Note, Kokernot says she wanted to try something “tender and subtle” dealing with the subject of old trauma. The subtlety seemed to be too subtle for me; I found the story to be almost mathematically symmetrical – trauma, healing relationship, breakup, reverse breakup, healing relationship the other way, end trauma – and in places, a little on-the-nose. But then we have the camel out of left field (literally).

The story’s divided into two sections, subheaded “M” and “L”, for Miriam and Liam, two old friends attending a wedding with a group of other old friends.

They had dated for three years in high school after what had been, at least for Liam, an agonizing crush that could be traced back to the fifth grade. It had begun on the day she was captain for recess basketball. He was the shortest kid back then and always chosen last, shifting from 1 foot to the other and smiling good-natured late to show it didn’t bother him. She’d admired him because of this, and pitied him a little. So she tapped him first. Afterward he seemed to be everywhere, trembling as he passed her a box of markers, staring at her with undisguised longing across the rows of cafeteria tables. It was all tremendously flattering. It was all tremendously irritating. She would ignore him for weeks and then, for reasons she couldn’t explain, return a look of equal longing, pass notes to him in the shape of origami cranes, share answers to the math homework, which he always forgot. By seventh grade she had the second-biggest boobs of any girl in the middle school. Grown men honked their horns and whistles as she walked home from the bus stop.

That paragraph becomes particularly meaningful a page or two later, when one of the plus-ones at the wedding brings the old trauma back to the surface. It must be part of the subtlety that there’s really very little in the story about how Miriam felt, or feels, for that matter, other than her initial denial that it’s the same guy at all, followed by her indication that getting better is the best revenge. These are no open wounds, but closed up, sealed scars, which only show a little. Is that the point? Or is the denial deep enough to just make it seem that way?

The division into sections must have a subtle purpose as well; I don’t quite understand the reason for this choice, other than to emphasize the two characters. Both sections are close third person – sort of close, that is, because we never get into anyone’s head. That’s an appropriate character choice for Miriam, but I’m not sure what Liam’s problem is. He’s a Nice Guy, but very cautious. Takes his shoes off before walking on dewy grass. Won’t test an electrified fence with a blade of grass. Both of which are wise precautions as an adult, but his caution was evident back when he was eighteen. He and Miriam went to get matching tattoos – M & L in “medieval manuscript letters” (ok, I know, that’s what a lot of people would call Gothic script, the hand of which varied by scribe, by the way, but for some reason it irked me) and he changed his mind after the M. Miriam saw it through, then had hers removed some years ago; a slight discoloration remains. A little on-the-nose, I think. But her reaction to Liam’s defection was perhaps the most emotionally understandable, empathetic moment of the story.

Then there’s the camel. Kokernot tells us, “[E]ver since meeting Izzy the camel in Waitsburg, I was determined to include a camel in a story.” I’m glad she accomplished her goal.