June 11: “Death Is Not an Option” by Suzanne Rivecca

Greetings, Story366! Today’s story made me wonder about something I haven’t wondered about in a while, something I’d fantasize about when I was younger, in my twenties, even into my thirties, but not recently: Reliving high school, but knowing what I know now. Lots of people have this fantasy. Hollywood makes movies about it, and sometimes, I wonder if high school teachers aren’t just living it, correcting mistakes they made the first time around (or trying to). This fantasy reveals some kind of shortcoming for the person who has it, and certainly, I’m no exception. When I was a freshman in college, I thought of what I could have done to better prepare myself, maybe get into a better school, and certainly, avoid the year I spent as a mechanical engineering major, eeking out Ds and squirreling probation. Later in life, it became about things more important than what my grades were or what school I got into. I started thinking more practically, about how I could have A) had more fun, and B) been a better person. I had a good group of friends in high school—junior and senior years especially—and I had a couple of steady girlfriends. Still, I spent a number of years imagining myself, older, more confident, and knowing I never had anything to lose, wishing I’d just asked all those girls out that I never had the courage to ask out. Confidence, I realized, was everything, and while that wouldn’t have gotten me every girl I had eyes for, at least one of them had to have said yes, right?

Along with all those girls that got away, the whole notion of high school becomes, for everyone, pretty absurd once you leave it. A lot of that has to do with being a minor—the school can’t just let thousands of kids come and go—but as soon as you get to college and make your own schedule, go to class when you want, leave whenever you want, the whole idea of detention and guards at the door and closed lunch seems ridiculous.

More than anything, it’s who you are as a person: Wouldn’t it be easy to be the best person ever if you went back, older and wiser? The energy a teenager combined with the knowledge of the world? What couldn’t you do? Not only could you succeed significantly better at schoolwork and socially, you could right the wrongs you’d committed. Who doesn’t have regrets? That person you weren’t kind to, that person who needed kindness, that cause that needed a leader? You could be all things to all people.

Even better, you could just tell your high school teachers and the bullies and the mean girls and standardized testing and soy hamburgers to fuck off. Really, what would it have mattered?

Anyway, how this connects to today’s story, “Death Is Not an Option,” the title story from Suzanne Rivecca’s collection Death Is Not a Option, out from Norton, is more of a leap than I usually make. Emma Aleramo, the protagonist and narrator of “Death Is Not an Option,” seems to me like she is an adult who went back into her high school body and had to live high school, knowing what she knows now. She is a withdrawn senior in high school, a girl with a close group of friends with whom she isn’t very close, of whom she knows very little about (her “best friend” has been having sex and Emma is the last to find out). She’s an introvert, admittedly, and for a long time in the story, we can see why.

Emma goes to Sacred Heart in Muskegon, Michigan, and it’s killing her. She’s a non-believer, not only in the Catholic rituals she’s subjected to at school, but to the entire high school experience. She’s over the cliques, she’s over the politics, and she’s over the education. She’s worked her butt off—another way she alienates her peers—and has earned a scholarship to Brandeis, a school she’s picked almost entirely because there are so few Catholics who attend; Emma’s not remotely Jewish.

The story opens on the first night of Sacred Heart’s yearly summer retreat, where priests and nuns from the school take the students into the woods for a week of hiking, crafts, and Catholic catechism. To Emma, it’s death, but at least it’s the last one. She tolerates her classmates, including her friends, and tolerates the staff, who have chosen the title song from Free Willy, entitled “Free Willy,” as this year’s official song (previous choices have been “Whoomp! There It Is!” and “U Can’t Touch This”—the story is set in 1994). Everything is depicted as insufferable, and Rivecca has a good time with Emma’s attitude—the story’s funny as hell, Emma’s commentary scathing and right-on.

Eventually—this is a long piece, nearly forty pages—Emma’s school-weariness becomes a burden for the reader, and this, I think, is intentional. Rivecca has created a complex character in Emma. Sure, Emma thinks like an adult, can sniff bullshit a mile away and then point it out with a good turn of phrase. At the same time, she’s forgotten that she’s like seventeen years old. As hard as everyone tries to have a good time, Emma’s as much a wet blanket as she is a sharp commentator. Even when the other girls try their hardest to reach out, to include her in their actitivies—they play a Truth or Dare?-type game called Death Is Not an Option—Emma not only shies away, but chooses to insult the girls instead. It’s during this scene that we find out another weird trait, something that makes Emma even more bizarre: an unhealthy obsession with her own vagina, especially its various secretions, yet, at the same time, a seemingly incomprehensible lack of understanding of how it works. Emma doesn’t let anyone close to her, but really, by this point, why would anyone want to be?

Emma’s weirdness takes a somewhat uncomfortable turn during a late-night encounter with a boy in the woods. The boy, Josh Bowers, comes across Emma at 4 a.m. when she’s just out for a rather routine middle-of-the-night cry. Josh, a pretty typical high school boy, wants to know why Emma is crying, wants to know what he can do to help, yet Emma is terrified of him. She believes, with all her heart, that Josh is going to rape her. The scene is tragic and hard to read, hard to analyze. On one hand, Josh is being a solid dude and Emma is being paranoid, but on the other hand, this is how rape happens and Emma’s smart enough to know it. Plus, what’s happened to Emma to make her this jumpy, to make her this terrified of males? The scene serves as one of two climaxes for the story—another one, with the entire group, follows the next day—but this is the scene that really makes this story stick out, really makes this more than a normal coming-of-age story, balances Emma’s biting sarcasm and love of her own menstrual fluids, the silliness that makes the rest of the story fun, but the stakes low. This makes “Death Is Not an Option” a truly fantastic story.

I really like what I’ve read from Death Is Not an Option, Suzanne Rivecca’s debut (and so far only) book. Not only did I like the stories, but Rivecca made me revisit high school for a bit, and those fantasies I used to have about going back, how my later-acquired smarts and confidence would turn me into Class President, valedictorian, star athlete, and Don Juan all at once. I stopped having those fantasies at some point, and I’m sure that getting married, having great kids, publishing books—real-life accomplishments—has a lot to do with it. Why go back and succeed at high school when you’re already scoring As in the real thing? I’ll pass. I’m good right where I am.