Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Joe Meno's "I Want The Quiet Moments of a Party Girl"

Aristotle wrote that one of the essential ingredients of tragedy was the hero’s realization – the too-late moment where he has an epiphany that if he had done something differently, then the series of consequences that become the tragedy could have been avoided. This theory has been supported by literature for centuries, but what happens if Aristotle’s definition is too narrow? A tragedy can be a tragedy without somebody making a mistake, and can occur simply because life sucks and the world is an ugly place.

Author Joe Meno agrees with me. In “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” a heart-wrenching story from his fabulous slap-you-in-the-face-with-loneliness collection Demons In The Spring (Akashic Books, ISBN: 978-1936070091), a couple is so staggeringly suffocated by tragedy, that they almost give up on taking that final gasp of air to resuscitate themselves.

The story begins with the male narrator describing the antics he and his girlfriend Sophie pull to entertain themselves. To some, the things they do would be considered immoral or strange (such as going to see guaranteed bad movies and yelling obscenities throughout the whole thing, only to ask for their money back at the end), but to the young couple it is their language of love. Their way of sharing and experiencing with one another.

This is not to say that the characters in this story come straight out of a romantic comedy, putting cake on each other’s noses and running around having pillow fights in their apartment while hysterically laughing before collapsing onto the bed in each other’s arms. What makes this duo unique is that they seem to have a solid understanding of the negative world around them, and rather than succumb to its bitterness, try to make the most of it.

“In our closet, Sophie has a collection of all the saddest things in the world. It is part of an art installation she has been planning for years, which we both know will probably never happen. On the weekends, Sophie drags me to all kinds of garage sales, yard sales, estate sales; it is her thing, looking for other people’s diaries, answering machine tapes, journals, letters, anything that tells someone else’s tragic story. She has boxes and boxes of that kind of junk, everything from war letters to miserable-looking family photo albums of people she has never met. When we first started going out, I asked her, “Why do you collect all this junk?” and she told me it was her way of understanding that life was one continuous tragedy. We were sitting on her small bed and I was just noticing the smell of her hair when she opened up a photo album from the ’70s and showed me a photograph of a girl who was maybe eight or nine at a zoo, standing beside a beautiful, velvety fawn. In the photograph, the girl was crying and holding her left hand. “It bit me,” Sophie whispered, pointing to a small white scar on the knuckle of her left hand. She kissed it and placed her knuckle against my lips. I felt like I understood something about her then, something that was both incredibly attractive and incredibly sad. I had never met anyone as sure of the imminent end of the world before, and for some reason I found it very reassuring.”

But in true Revolutionary Road fashion, the honeymoon period doesn’t last. The couple becomes overexposed to one another and the little ticks that once seemed endearing are now plucking the chords of each other’s last nerves. When Sophie becomes pregnant, the narrator is annoyed by her nonchalant attitude toward motherhood. “The only problem is that Sophie doesn’t act like she’s pregnant,” he says. “When I ask her when she plans on slowing down, when it is she’s going to begin to act like she’s having a baby, she just looks at me funny and shrugs, rolling her eyes, and then tells me to kiss off. Her hair is long and dark and she has a beauty mark just above her lip, and when she shrugs it makes you feel small and stupid for ever troubling her about anything.”

Sophie’s nonchalant attitude about a person growing inside of her ultimately fades, and the couple shares their excitement about starting a family, both with themselves and with everyone they know. “We are just past twelve weeks and so we have already told everybody that Sophie is pregnant; people at our jobs we don’t really know, people we think we despise,” the narrator says. The little ticks that seemed to be getting under one another’s skin seem to have disappeared, and the couple becomes the matured version of their previous selves.

And then the tragedy occurs: the narrator gets a phone call at work from Sophie that she’s bleeding and is going to the hospital. It is during the news of Sophie’s miscarriage that Meno displays his exquisite craft as a master of language. “What hurts is to find out we are not as special as we had always believed,” the narrator says in reaction to the devastating news. Meno’s choice of words are simple and eloquent, cutting right to the core of the sentiment being expressed as well as the heart of the reader. These moments of Lydia Davis-inspired minimalism are where Meno’s writing shines the most. His stories are sprinkled with beautiful brief sentences that provide more clarity than many writers achieve with full-length descriptive paragraphs.

After the miscarriage, the grieving couple is stuck in romantic limbo. They stop connecting both physically and emotionally because they remind each other of their loss.

“We try to talk to each other about it but the bad feeling is here to stay for a while at least. When Sophie is speaking to her mother on the telephone, I go around the house looking for anything that might remind us of what we have lost. I put the children’s books we have bought, toys, clothes, in a closet. I stare at the pile of stuffed animals and feel like I need to apologize to them, too, for some reason.
I notice Sophie sitting over her cardboard box of tragedies. Without a word, she yanks off her plastic emergency room bracelet and places it inside, then puts the top back on and shoves it into the corner.
When we finally go to sleep, we are too tired to say goodnight. I lie there feeling as if I have lost both arms and legs. Like something more important than my heart has been stolen from me. What can be more important than your heart? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it is now missing.”

But then something miraculous happens. The narrator hears Sophie running the water to prepare for a bath, which is when he realizes they haven’t even been naked together in longer than he can remember. He strips off his clothes and climbs into their tiny bathtub behind her, cradling his arms around her and holding onto her tightly so as not to lose the love they once had. He says “hello” to her and she says “hello” back. I’ll spare you the inevitable cliché imagery of the water they’re in cleansing their relationship or their nudity as a symbol of their vulnerability in exposing themselves to one another, but this gorgeous moment is tender and full of hope. Despite the suffering they’ve endured, Meno makes it clear that the tragedy they’ve endured will not be a death sentence for these two. Again, Meno’s minimalist language (the single most basic word, “hello”) successfully evokes pages of sentiment and feeling.

There is nothing that these two could have done differently to avoid the tragedy that came their way. What makes this such a profound love story, however, is how they wouldn’t let that tragedy signal their demise. They proved that their feelings were stronger than the obstacles life threw at them. Their love rose from the ashes it was incinerated into and emerged as a damaged but beautiful phoenix.

At first glance, Meno’s stories have a way of seeming dark and tragic. The key to seeing the light in this dark, however, is understanding that although his characters are consumed by tragic events, they always somehow survive and refuse to let these events define them. A miscarriage has the potential (and historical evidence) to shatter a relationship. In “I Want The Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” it is not the miscarriage that is the focus of the story – rather it is the promise of resurrecting hope that the protagonists ultimately achieve that is what stays with the reader. The most crucial difference, then, between Aristotle and Meno’s definitions of tragedy, are that Aristotle believes that a tragic event must end with a crippled protagonist who cannot move forward due largely to regret. Meno, on the other hand, sees tragedy as a stepping stone, proving that sometimes it is the most heart shattering event that ultimately leads us to our personal salvations.

Illustrations by Caroline Hwang

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