I’ve seen these women before.
At coffee shop tables, writing in notebooks and dreaming out the windows, an almost magisterial aloneness about them. My hand locked around a glass of beer, I’ve stared longingly through smoke-filled bars at them (this was before the ban, before my wife and daughter) on the solitary stool at the end they seemed to own, weighing the risk—no, the inevitability—of rejection, always turning away because they seemed much too grown-up for me.
Don’t let me be lonely. This is the resounding plea of the women (and one man) of Marie-Helen Bertino’s debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses, winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award.
In the collection’s second story, “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” the narrator explains one of the pleasures of being alone:
When you’re alone, you are in the right place to watch sadness approach like storm clouds over an open field. You can sit in a chair and get ready for it. As it moves through you, you can reach out your hand and feel all the edges. When it passes and you can drink coffee again, you even miss it because it has been loyal to you like a boyfriend.
The characters in the eight stories that comprise Safe as Houses rely on their sadness, their otherness and sense of alienation. These traits separate them from an America from which they’d more often than not prefer to be apart: a country dominated by lacrosse stars who shout faggot at their gay classmates, misogynist priests, boyfriends who leave for strippers, and nuclear families with family-cum-entertainment rooms “set up like the command station at NASA.”
The problem is, where does one go? Where is the other, better world?
“Eight strong sails,” Bertino wrote on her website on the day Houses was released. “Today I launch my little ship.” The stories are sincere, often surreal, and always urgent. Many also grow from fantastical concepts. In “The Idea of Marcel” the protagonist goes on a date with the ideal version of her ex, Marcel, and finds the real Marcel on a date with the ideal version of herself. But Bertino never comes across as trivial or silly, because she is always charging at the buried, often dark, core of things, a core concealed by the ever-orbitting things of our world, the iPads and Pomeranians and free DVD players, the strip malls and supermarkets.
When it is not filled with Christmas trees, it is a parking lot for a movie store, a dentist’s office, and a bakery. A man who works there breathes into his hands, says to the woman standing next to him that it is cold as balls and we should all take a train to Mexico.
Many of the characters in this collection have, in one way or another, lost homes. In “Free Ham,” fire consumes the narrator’s house, though her home—as opposed to her house—has already been mangled by an abusive father who likes to show his daughter his fist before he winds up and cracks her, a father who, in a photograph where he holds his daughter for the first time, “makes this face: I have no idea what to do with this thing.” In “North of,” the protagonist brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner after being away at college for five years. Her brother has enlisted, is on his way to Iraq. Bob Dylan—who, in a move that feels perfect, grunts and groans and exhales lines of cigarette smoke ten yards long rather than say a word—is a sister’s attempt to get her older brother, who once loved the songwriter, back. And in the title story, the only male protagonist in the collection—the “keepsake klepto, the swindler of sentiment,” a man who breaks into McMansions and ransacks macaroni valentines, baseball trophies, and family photos on the beach, which he calls “framed fuck-yous”—copes with the loss of his wife and cat; he watched a bus run them over on their way to the vet. But throughout the collection, I had the the sense that these characters weren’t lost without their homes so much as they were stranded, run aground in a plastic America and bemoaning, Really? This is what I’m left with?
I liked that “Safe as Houses” was the title story of the collection. Contempt for the comfortable classes, for the less-skeptical and willing to settle, is an attitude held by almost all of Bertino’s protagonists. What separates the title story from the others, though, aside from its male protagonist, is that it attributes a more complex and troubled world to the type of character Bertino’s protagonists often loathe: when the keepsake klepto and his partner pry open the locked medicine cabinet of a family vacationing in Mexico, they discover a cache of prescription drugs, “oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, Percocet, Ambien,” all of them the husband’s. Contempt turns to pity: “A soft feeling unrolls in my chest. I wonder how many people I pissed off when I was happy.”
I once saw a show at the Double Door in Wicker Park, Chicago, right around the time when rents were climbing and all the artists were leaving. I was standing at the bar, right near a girl with dyed-black hair and a blunt bang. She wore a white prom dress, knee-high boots and sleeves of tattoos—much too hip for me. I saw her looking at a young guy, hardly if at all older than twenty-one, in khakis and a North Face fleece—very Big Ten. Go back to Lincoln Park you pencil-dick yuppie! she yelled at him. He appeared to have come to the show alone. She kept yelling at him. The music was loud, but she was louder. After the song he left.
I thought about this woman more than once while reading Bertino’s collection, because her protagonists are often quick to lump peripheral characters into a bourgeois type to be detested. This attitude is, of course, a cause for their loneliness, and at times during Safe as Houses I tired of reading about characters who miss that most people are just trying to make out as best they can in a world they cannot change.
What I liked most about about this collection, though, is that even in the midst of heartbreak, Bertino is so side-splittingly funny. She reminds us that great humor and great tragedy often go hand in hand. “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” is about a lonesome young woman working as a receptionist. The most demanding part of her job is keeping track of the bathroom key. Her boyfriend just left for a stripper. She narrates the story as an alien (shout out, Kurt Vonnegut!) sending information to her home planet, a planet with a name that “does not have an English equivalent. Roughly it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings. I fax them back to my superiors. We have fax machines on Planet Cricket Rice.” Later on she tells us,
You’re not allowed to feel bad about anything when you are around people in wheelchairs, which is why I don’t like people in wheelchairs. You can say, Sometimes at night I wake up and my throat is filled with loneliness and I am choking. And they will say, I am in a wheelchair. And they will win. They are the human pain equivalent of a royal flush.
The story ends in a fantastic way, with the narrator arranging Christmas lights on her roof so they spell, “HELP ME.” And people come to her. They park on her lawn and disembark, “holding baskets with cloth over them.” She looks beyond her yard and sees “More cars than I could count… I could see headlights for miles. They were still coming.”
This isn’t the only story in the collection that ends on a note of exaltation. Characters are delivered from their loneliness as often as they are left to bear it. Often they pity themselves to the brink of exhaustion—mine as much as theirs; I came close to begging one or two of the protagonists to please stop whining! But what couples with loneliness better than self-pity? So many of us remain childless searchers into our thirties, still trying to figure things out, to get things right. We are old enough to have suffered terrible loss and crushing failure, but young enough to strike out for something better. When you pick up Safe as Houses, you’re launched into this massive chunk of a generation of Americans. In Bertino’s America, like the real one, people are more connected than ever, yet just as lonesome as before.
John Kersey lives in Chicago with his wife and their daughter. He teaches creative writing at Elgin Community College. More work of his can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.