April 7: “Baby Geisha” by Trinie Dalton

Hello, Story366! Glad to be back at you on Thursday of Books I Got at AWP Week. I’ve enjoyed this week a lot, as I’ve mostly gotten to read books by authors completely new to me. Since this is one of the goals of both this blog and AWP—new authors finding new audiences—I wish I could do a few Books I Got at AWP Weeks over the course of the year. Sadly, I only picked up eight new story collections, so that’s not going to happen. Perhaps for Story366 2020? Book it!

I’ve not read any Trinie Dalton before today that I know of, but stepping back a bit, I haven’t always known about her press, Two Dollar Radio, either. I mean, I’ve not always known about everything, but Two Dollar Radio is one of those things that was a big deal before I came across it. I first heard their name at AWP in Seattle when I was asking around about what events to go to, off site, each night. Most of the people I talked to said they were headed to the Two Dollar Radio reading, and before long, I was trying to get to the Three Buck Movie event—yes, I actually said that to someone, who said, “You mean Two Dollar Radio?” “Yeah,” that one. So, despite me being an editor and a writer and a teacher, sometimes I am foolishly behind on something cool. It happened to me with parachute pants, pumpable sneakers, Arcade Fire, and then with Two Dollar Radio. Better late than never, I say.

I didn’t get to the Two Dollar Radio reading in Seattle as I was reading somewhere else at the same time. I saw them at AWP again in Minneapolis last year, then at some festivals later when I was promoting my book: Pygmalion, Pitchfork, and Mission Creek. I talked to their editors a bit, got some books, and realized how cool they are, what they do for literature, their point of view, the mark they’ve made. A good find, no matter how long it took me to get there.

Two Dollar Radio doesn’t put out a lot of story collections—they’re mostly into novels—but they do have a few, including Dalton’s Baby Geisha. It was the only one they had at AWP, and really, for this project, that’s good enough.  The title story, “Baby Geisha,” starts with its protagonist, Claire, giving a blowjob to a guy named Grizzly in a parked car, a blowjob that’s interrupted by a meter maid giving them a ticket. Mid-act, Grizz cracks the window to argue with the woman, making him more erect and Claire more focused. She repeats to herself, “Don’t Break My Rhythm,” determined to continue, to finish, to achieve her goal. The back-cover description of Baby Geisha calls the book “sexually-charged,” so this didn’t surprise me, and overall, it’s a pretty good start for a short story—action, intrigue, danger, and public oral sex. In the industry, we call this an “attention-getter.”

Then Dalton pulls the rug out from under us: Claire has just been dreaming this blow job, Grizz, Grizz’s car, the meter maid. The third page of the story—after a page flip—starts with this revelation. As it turns out, Claire knows a guy named Grizz, but is married to Taylor and not at all attracted to Grizz. Why is she dreaming of blowing him while he argues parking tickets, then? According to the interior monologue that Dalton feeds Claire, dreams of oral sex, for women, mean they want a baby (while for men, I’m pretty sure they mean that we like blowjobs). More so, the oral part of the sex represents a virgin birth, like Mary gave to Christ, something more pure than the intrusion of vaginal intercourse. The car/meter maid scenario doesn’t seem pure (though Grizz’s dick does smell like butter cookies), but argue that with Jung or Dalton, not me. Really, though, it all seems to be true: Claire wants a baby, her clock starting to tick, and Taylor simply doesn’t. “Baby Geisha” is about the interpretation of this theory, how it affects Claire, what it makes her do.

After Dalton’s dream revelation, Claire tells Taylor about it, and he’s not sure what to do. One reaction is, “Do you want to have sex?” and even Claire doesn’t know how to answer. Soon, though, there’s a jump in time and the couple is divorced. Not because of the baby-wanting differences, but because Claire cheats on Taylor with her best friend and soul mate, Rita, in the guest room right next to their bedroom. The incident starts with some flirting, then a massage request, then Claire pretending to be a geisha, the women soon on Rita’s bed, slathered in oil, and becoming “more than friends.” Claire immediately gives the same treatment to Taylor, and afterwards, tells him that she’d just done the same thing with Rita; Taylor, who is free to stray from the marriage for his bisexual desires, flashes double-standard all over the situation (plus, assumedly, passes up an easy threesome), and Claire is left to wander about, single, childless, and unsure of herself sexually.

I really like “Baby Geisha” for all the risks it takes. Firstly, it’s openly sexual, which is hard to do, even when writers are willing to do it. Next, there’s that it-was-all-a-dream opening, which is even harder to pull off; after all, the number one cliché in fiction-writing is the it-was-all-a-dream ending, something even my intro students chuckle at in this point of the semester. Dalton doesn’t put it at the end, but when she employs it, she owns it, makes it such an obvious and integral part of the story, there’s no hiding it, no denying it (at least after the first two pages). Even the time jump, the affair, and where the story goes from there (I’ve revealed enough already) are all risky, none of it predictable, boring, or cheap. I’ve read a few of the stories in Baby Geisha and Dalton takes risks like this throughout. To someone looking for traditional stories, Dalton’s work might be off-putting. But who’s looking for that anymore, anyway? Like Two Dollar Radio, Dalton is a major find.