December 14: “An American Affair” by Mark Brazaitis

Hey there, Story366!  Yesterday I wrote about how much final grading I had to do, as this morning, I gave two final exams and had to have everything for both classes completely done beforehand. That kept me up until 3:15 this morning, which was followed by a 6:50 alarm, leaving me more or less spent, you’d think. And you’d be thinking right. I still have those two piles of finals to grade, a couple of independent study packets to read through, and then all the work for the press that I’ve let slide the last week or two.

Why am I telling you all this, boring you to tears? Well, firstly, because that’s what I do most days on this blog, and as much as I try to avoid it, here I am again. Secondly, I really, really want to be writing creatively now. I’ve known academics in my life, creative writing profs, who have told me they absolutely cannot get any writing done during the semester, that they do all of their own creative work during the breaks. Before I was a professor, I didn’t believe it. Now that I serve in that capacity, I’m seeing it, at least in a minor way. No way, shape, or form I’m going to have the time or energy to get anything serious done in this last month of the fall semester, not between Thanksgiving week and the end of the term. I keep reading all these stories—for this blog, plus all those written by my students—and I just want to play, too. It’s like everyone is hanging out in front of me with the best toys and I just have to sit on the sideline and evaluate their playing. I’ll be done by noon on Friday—and that’s with everything—Friday being December 17; the spring semester begin on January 17. I’m no mathologist, but that gives me exactly a month to concentrate my efforts squarely on my own creative work. I can’t wait. I wish it was noon on Friday right freakin’ now. Oh, why can’t it be noon on Friday right freakin’ now?!

I’ve found real pleasure in the midst of all this grading, and grade figuring, and grade everything in doing this blog, especially since I know this project, in its current form, is winding down. This week, I’m doing another Bowling Green alum week, bringing us to today’s focus, Mark Brazaitis and his collection An American Affair, out from Texas Review Press as a winner of its George Garrett Fiction Prize. I know Mark, both of us alum of BG, though he was about five years ahead of me and I’ve only gotten to know him in the last five years or so. In 2012, he had me as a reader and panelist at the West Virginia Writers Conference, then had me read as a rep of that event at this last AWP in LA. Before that, I only really knew him by rep, as he was a guy who wrote really beautiful fiction, lots of magical realism, intriguing me to the point of seeking out his thesis in the BG library and reading it. There was this great story that had been in Quarterly West—a pretty snazzy publication for a grad student—about a couple dealing with marital issues, all while a constellation—yes, a group of stars—has parked itself in its back yard. I then sought out Mark’s first story collection, The River of Lost Voices: Stories From Guatemala, which had won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Those stories were all set in Guatemala, where Mark had worked after grad school as a Peace Corps volunteer, and were beautiful tales, mostly about Americans abroad in the South American land. Great book, chosen by one of my heroes, Stuart Dybek, which makes it all the sweeter.

The stories in An American Affair seem to pick right up where River of Lost Voices left off, as I read three stories from the book today and all were set in Guatemala. Two of them, “Before the Wedding” and the titular “An American Affair,” seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, as both deal with similar themes, look at relationships, and a particular relationship problem, in the same light. I could have written about either, but since I’m inclined to push the title story, here we go.

“An American Affair” is about this guy, Terry, who’s an American, but lives and works in Guatemala after his Peace Corps stint finished up. He married a local woman named Paulina and had a son, Marco, who is seven at the outset of the story. So, Terry’s been in Guatemala for going on ten years. At the start of the tale, Terry is in bed with a coworker from USAID named Diane, another American, hence the story’s title. Diane is older than Terry, much older than Paulina, and Brazaitis gracefully describes Diane as considerably less attractive: Her hair is thinning, she’s not in good shape, that kind of thing. All of this is important because Terry is actually noting these things, to himself, while having the sex, yet, it’s clear he’s entralled with Diane, anyway. The reason why Terry’s so into Diane, we find out, is because he’s just that homesick and anything American is catching his attention. Diane is unpredictable, confident, and even kind of boorish, but she’s exactly what Terry’s looking for, a little bit of home.

The first third of the story is taken up by this scene between Terry and Diane in bed, which turns out to be their first time together (and gets graphic). Their USAID contract has been terminated and they go to Diane’s to drink their sorrows away, never drinking, just heading straight to the bedroom, the whole interaction somehow understood before they left the office. By the end of the romp, Diane reveals she has decided to leave the country, head back home, which only makes Terry jealous of her, not to mention find her more attractive: He can smell American on her like a perfume.

Terry can’t worry about Diane, though, as he has to go home to Paulina, just having cheated on her, guilt and sex and inexperience dripping off him like sweat. When he gets there, he seems to have a really nice nuclear life, a wife making him dinner, a kid playing video games and basketball, a conversation about money and the family’s future. Paulina wants Terry to work for her brother, but Terry chooses this time, Diane all over his body and mind, to suggest they move to America, just for a little while. That doesn’t go over especially well, nor does the scent of Diane’s perfumed soap wafting off his skin.

That’s as far as I’ll go in relaying the plot. More things happen, there’s twists and turns, but for sure, this story is character-focused, Brazaitis capturing his man at a vulnerable time, vulnerability that makes him do bad and interesting things. Terry’s motivation is clear—he just wants a part of home—and that’s a unique germ for a story, what someone will sacrifice to relieve just a tiny bit of that itch. Terry’s single-mindedness defines him and makes him worthy of a story, but I like Diane just as much, if not more, this walking, talking America, loud, direct, and a bit past her prime, all part of her appeal. Nice to see a writer come up with unique characters, throw them in a room together, and make them stick together (quite literally for a bit there).

Mark Brazaitis as a young man went to Guatemala, came back, and wrote two collections of short stories based on his experiences, including An American Affair. I like those stories quite a bit, but also like his newer work, including a story that had absolutely nothing to do with Guatemala that I published in Mid-American Review a few years back (in fact the very last story I ever accepted for publication there). Mark’s a talented writer. Check him out.