November 29: “The Prettiest Girls” by Christine Sneed

Greetings, Story366! I hope your day is going well. Today is Tuesday, rumored to be the busiest day of the week, and today, I believe it. Karen and I were supposed to go on a date tonight, to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we looked at each other this morning and both admitted that we had way too much to do today to go off on some date, only two weeks left in the semester, everything stacking upward speeding toward its end. I worked in my office today for four straight hours and must have knocked twenty things off my to-do list, yet I still have twenty more things to do … for tomorrow. I know I just had nine straight days off, but really, I wasted the fuck out of most of those days. Maybe my batteries are recharged—that’s the story I’m going with, anyway. I am a horrible adult.

Speaking of, just a little bit ago, my oldest was telling me about how he wishes he could be an adult, have his “own life.” He’s ten. I assured him every kid has these feelings, but we still had a discussion about the pros and cons of adulthood. Here’s an excerpt (him talking):

“Then there’s the issue of having pizza for dinner. The wife wants hot pizza, but you want cold pizza, leftover from the refrigerator. Do you microwave it to make the wife happy or do you eat it cold the way you want to? The wife wants it hot, but once she sees those soggy crusts, she might be like ‘Oh.'”

We agreed, eventually, that since pizza can be cut up—that it actually comes that way—this might not be the biggest problem he and his future wife will face.

This is funny for a couple of reasons, mostly because it’s me having this discussion with my child, which is preposterous as I’m still just a kid, too, right? It’s also hilarious that this is what he’s worried about, microwaving pizza years from now. Finally, it’s notable that he employs second person, as in the universal you.

But then, when I thought about it, it’s like, Why is he thinking this? Is this what Karen and I do, argue over how to reheat the pizza? Is that what we’ve modeled for him, how he’s formed his expectations of adulthood? Plus, what’s with the use of this term, “the wife?” What started as an unbelievably funny anecdote—we were driving as he was saying this and I almost drove off the road—which I shared on FB, but then it got serious, morphed into me questioning my parenting skills. The boy and I had a talk after I realized all this and I asked him where he heard this term and why he was so worried about day-old pizza. His responses were somewhat reassuring, somewhat mysterious, somewhat time to stop thinking about this and write about today’s story.

Today’s author is Christine Sneed, a writer friend from Chicago who currently teaches at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Illinois. Her latest book is the collection The Virginity of Famous Men, out from Bloomsbury Publishing. Sneed writes longish stories—all twenty to twenty-five pages, about people going through dilemmas, moments of self-doubt, inner conflicts as well as outer ones. I’ve read a couple of stories from this collection before (including the title story, which took me a couple of pages to recognize—there’s been a title change … it’s complicated …), and I’ve always liked her work. One story in particular stood out, “The Prettiest Girls,” so here we go.

“The Prettiest Girls” is about this middle-aged guy (47 … just four years older than me …) named Jim who works as a location scout (amongst other things) in Hollywood. He’s twice divorced, has two kids he never sees who go to expensive East Coast colleges, and he’s decently good at his job. The story starts with him in Mexico, looking for a particular type of church for a dream sequence shot, where he meets a young Mexican woman named Elsa. Elsa is ridiculously beautiful—she reminds Jim of Sophia Loren at her peak—and serves as Jim’s guide. She claims she knows exactly where there’s a church like the one Jim is looking for and what she wants in return is a role as an extra in the film. Jim can say yes—he has the kind of sway to get an extra hired—but he also needs to get his church, so he’s coy with her, strings her along, leading her eventually (as in that first night) to bed. Yet, Elsa got the role. This is the very start of a kind of chess match between Jim and Elsa, lovers who each have something the other wants; Elsa wants to be in movies, to leave Mexico and be in America, while Jim just wants Elsa, this beautiful woman less than half his age.

This comes to that and Jim is paying some border guards to let him take Elsa back with him to LA. When he gets there, he has to first break up with his longtime (and age-appropriate) girlfriend, Lisette, whom everyone in his life was fond of, who despises him for his cowardice. It’s too late, though, as he’s been sleeping with Elsa, she’s already living in his house, and he’s got her there illegally to boot. From there, Jim and Elsa live together, having lots of sex and Jim buying her lots of things to keep her happy. Jim continues working, too, moving from set to set, location to location, leaving Elsa alone for long stretches, gone sometimes fifteen hours a day. This doesn’t make the impatient and restless Elsa very happy, so Jim has to make it up to her with more gifts, more promises, etc.

There’s a lot of this back and forth between the two, who fight a lot, trying to find a balance between manipulating the other and living their lives. For example, even after Jim breaks up with Lisette, Elsa isn’t satisfied and wants him to slice open his finger and swear a blood oath that he’ll never talk to Lisette again—it’s not a pursuit she gives up, either. Elsa also wants to be in movies—duh—but Jim doesn’t really care about all that (even though he has that kind of power). He’s thrilled he gets to walk around Hollywood, around sets, where he knows a lot of people, with Elsa on his arm. It’s a complicated but well drawn relationship that Sneed’s painted here.

And that’s what I really like about this story, how unconventional and messed-up this union proves to be. The sweet, starry-eyed girl of Mexico becomes a demanding mistress almost magically when they cross the border. She understands she is a trophy but is going to milk it, anyway, ride it to the top. Jim understands all of this but because he’s rich, 47, and horny, he’s blind to what’s happening to him, but at the same time, worries constantly that it’ll end, that Elsa will be taken from him, by a director or actor probably, someone with better connections than his. I’ve read a lot of stories this year about relationships, but I can’t think of any about a couple who knows their relationship is temporary but soldiers through it, anyway, just because they each need something from the other. It’s an old dynamic, sure, the young beauty trading her body for something she wants, the older man destroying his dignity so he can feel young again. The setting and the writing and the everything make Sneed’s version so, so good, the characters so fresh, so unknowing and uncaring of just how short a time they have.

Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is a brand-new collection and it’s a good one. I really like how Sneed takes complicated characters with seemingly uncomplicated lives and makes the most of their situations, crafts stories around the little insecurities, the minor decisions that dictate who they are. I’m all-in on this collection, one of the more solid books released this year.