“Virgin” by April Ayers Lawson

Happy New Year, Story366! Wow! It’s been nineteen days since my last post—that’s sounding more twelve-step than I want it to—so it’s probably time I get back to it. 366 straight days of doing something took about two days to break, I found. That first day, New Year’s Day, I was kind of jonesing for an entry, and the next morning, I woke in a start, feeling as if something was wrong, like I hadn’t posted in Story366, that I’d forgotten and went to bed and disaster had ensued. Well, I had, sort of. I felt like writing a post on January 2, but really, I instead took advantage of my long holiday break from teaching to do a lot of work on Moon City Press projects and on my own writing. I actually got a few stories done and submitted and, well, that’s the goal, isn’t it?

Still, I’ve been collecting books left and right like I still am writing about each day, and those piles are only going to grow. So, here I am, just a day into my spring semester, writing a Story366 post.

How’s this going to work, you might be asking (or might not be), as I no longer am pressed to do an entry a day, before midnight, in fear of turning into a pumpkin, or at least a small gourd. I guess the only real difference is that I won’t be putting a date in the title of entries any more, as dates only mattered to the one-a-day-for-a-year aspect of this. For these new entries, if someone wants to know the date, they can look at the date that WordPress puts at the top of the post; otherwise, dates don’t matter. I wondered, too, how things would look in my indices, and really, I think it’ll work the same way: I’ll still index everything by author and press, skipping the month and day, and will of course not list any new entries in that last index, the one that lists 2016 in date order. Otherwise, all new entries will be catalogued with the original 366 because, well, how else would I do it and not make it more complicated than it needs to be?

In any case, onward!

Ironically, instead of doing one of those books that had been left out of the 2016 run, or one of the books an author has sent me, today I’m doing a book that I ran across at Barnes & Noble the other day, April Ayers Lawson‘s Virgin and Other Stories, out from FSG. The fam and I made a sojourn there, just to relax, get out of the house (this was the day after the predicted ice storm), and let our youngest play with the Thomas train set, as he’ll do. I always pick up a book on my way, and the story collection that grabbed me was Virgin. I had not seen Lawson’s work or even heard her name at that point, but hey, that’s (still) what Story366 is about, isn’t it, finding new authors and new books? I took Virgin to the kid’s section (that sounds dirtier than I mean it to) and read the first story, the title story, the long Virgin.

Virgin is about this couple, Jake and Sheila, in their mid-twenties and newly wed. Sheila is the titular virgin of the story, or at least was (am I giving too much away?), a virgin when they started dating, a virgin on their wedding night, and a virgin for some time after. This conflict is at the heart of the story, and it’s a good one, as, yeah, people’s sex lives are interesting, and yeah, it’s unusual for someone in contemporary times to be a virgin on their wedding night (I’m guessing), and extremely rare (I’m certain) for anyone to be a virgin for so long after their honeymoon. Yet, this is the story of the relationship between Jake and Sheila, as Sheila is not open to a sexual relationship with Jake for most of the story. When they first meet, it’s made clear that her purity is going to be a wedding-night gift to her husband (sounds like something my mom used to say to me and my siblings when she gave us her version of “the talk”); on their wedding night, she’s just trepidatious—she even slaps Jake when he tries to touch her in their marital bed, slaps him hard. This is at first written off as her being anxious and scared—heck, he’s in her mid-twenties and hasn’t had sex, so this moment has been built up for a while—but then the real reason she doesn’t want to have sex with Jake, or anyone, is revealed when the couple goes to therapy, info I’ll leave for you to find out on your own.

Eventually, the couple does become intimate, and Jake thinks this is the turning point, perhaps even a change in administration (wow, bad timing for that particular line today …), but no, it’s not like they just got at it like rabbits from then on.  But no, it’s not that easy, and from there, as they say, things start to get really complicated.

To portray this story simply with this sex-or-no-sex conflict would be a mistake, as what’s front and center for me in “Virgin” is how the story is structured, as well as how the story is told. The story is mostly from Jake’s point of view, which I think was an interesting choice, though at times, it feels like there’s more omniscience between the two characters, like it’s been told from their perspective instead of just his. What’s more intriguing, however, is the order in which all of this goes down, what part it plays in the grand scheme. We start with the couple entering a party, hosted by a woman Jake knows from work, and in the first line, Jake is caught staring at the host’s cleavage as she takes his coat. We then see he and Sheila move around the room, but before long, we’re flashing back to the couple meeting, marrying, not having sex, etc., revisiting that party from the first scene every once in a while (and, in fact, ending there). I don’t want to give too much away, but this party, which seems random, offers scenes that change the focus of the story overall—the tale of Sheila and her virginity indeed falls to backstory, just as Lawson presents it. The main conflict of the story, we find out, isn’t about this couple’s lack of physicality, or even why that’s happening, but what happens as a result. So, it’s not a story about late-stage virginity, as it would be easy to assume, but the long-term effects of what a lack of honesty and intimacy can do to two people whose relationship is supposed to be based on honesty and intimacy. Someone could read this story and this it’s kind of inside-out, maybe backward, but I think it’s a really well told tale, one put together unlike any story I can think of.

I liked reading “Virgin” and some of the other stories in Virgin, all tales of sex, infidelity, and discovery, all told with the same style and attention to structure and detail that April Ayers Lawson employs in her title piece. It’s a brand-new collection and I still haven’t heard any buzz about it or have seen a review, so this is cold, but I like it, admire how intricate these stories felt, how well conceived.

Good to be back on the horse again. I hope to get to a couple-few entries a week up from here on out, but hey, who knows—I’m not on the clock any more. And you know what? It feels good.

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December 31: “The Sun, The Moon, the Stars” by Junot Díaz

Happy New Year, Story366! Wow, I can’t believe it’s the last day of 2016! A year ago—as in a regular 365-day year ago, I started this project, cajoling Karen into figuring out WordPress for me, some time around 5 in the evening, and before midnight, I posted on Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” from Fortune Smiles, the first of 366 straight days of posting on stories, on authors, on collections. When I started, I never really thought about today, and by that, I don’t mean I doubted myself—I just mean I never thought about the last day, pictured the finish line; I’m more of a day-at-a-time person. Right now, I can see the finish line, can make out the texture of the red band stretching across the invisible plane, the band I’ll tear through with my chest. Maybe I should become that picture-the-goal guy more often. I kind of like it.

In any case, as I type this, I’m both excited and sad as I will not be reading and writing about a collection tomorrow for the first time in over a year. It’s not that I couldn’t do one—as noted in past posts, I’m continuing on next year, only not every day—it’s just that we have a huge day with family stuff, some traveling to do, a lot of baking, and a lot of, well, I just need a day off. Plus, if I do one tomorrow, then maybe I’d do one the next day, and before long, the stupid part of my brain will start telling me that I could do it again, do another year, or heck, just do it every day for the rest of my life. This has been great and all, but really, I need to divide and conquer, work on the novel I started at the end of 2015, write some stories, maybe read a novel or two, and get my ass on the treadmill. I could keep this going, but I’m simply not going to. It’s like when Cal Ripken, Jr., just showed up at the ballpark one day and told his manager he didn’t want to play, after nearly twenty years of running out on the field every day. I’m not comparing myself to Ripken, but he said he just wanted it to end to he could do something else, be defined in another way. He could have played that day, played every game until he retired or got injured, but he didn’t. He made the choice, made it happen by his own hand, by his own rules. I’ve had a fantastic run, but really, my rule was, on January 1, to do this for one year. I need to end it before it consumes me, makes me not like it, ends because of something else, like a family emergency or other such medical situation. That would suck.

Yesterday, a friend and former student, David Keaton, posted on FB about kidnapping me today, preventing me from finishing, some kind of How to Eat Fried Worms scenario (so far, I haven’t seen him today). More ridiculous or sad or whatever, I’ve thought a lot about dying since I posted on Kathleen Collins yesterday, started thinking ironically, as in, wouldn’t be ironic if my ticker just threw in the towel, one post left to go? Karen, on our way out today, told me to fasten my seatbelt, just in case, thinking of the blog, thinking of this 366th post-to-be. I’m not out of the woods quite yet, but yeah, to let you know, mortality has been the theme of this New Year’s Eve, me thinking I might die—and yes, I’m thinking that I might die tonight or tomorrow, after I post, this project the only thing keeping me alive. So, if that happens, that would suck, too, though I’d bet Story366 would get some mongo-record hits for a few days.

I wanted to do someone special for the last day of the year, starting things off with Johnson, one of my favorite writers, using his reigning NBA winner to launch the project. I considered many writers for the back half of the bookend and settled on Junot Díaz a long time ago. Like so many other books this year, I’m embarrassed that I’ve not finished This Is How You Lose Her (out from Riverhead) before, but hey, as I’ve said so many times, that’s why I did Story366, to assuage my guilt, to bring closure to so many of those bookmarks sticking out from the middle of so many books. Since Díaz is one of the preeminent authors of our time and one of my favorites—I’ve taught both Drown and Oscar Wao in multiple classes—I reserved the honor for him.

I’d read a lot of the stories from This Is How You Lose Her before, either in The New Yorker or anthologies like Best American Short Stories, having used “Nilda” many times in classes (replacing the long-standing “Fiesta, 1980” as my Díaz du jour), but there were a few that I’d never read. I’ve now finished this book—nice closure for a day of closures—but will write about the lead story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” one I’m pretty sure I’d seen Díaz read from before (on YouTube or something), but never read, never got to the end of.

In any case, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about, like so much of Díaz’s work, Yunior, a guy who emigrated from Santo Domingo to New Jersey when he was a kid. Most everything I can think of by Díaz involves Yunior and his family, I think, including Oscar Wao, where Yunior is at first a minor character, arriving later in the book, but then turns out to be a larger player, and eventually, is revealed to be the book’s narrator. In any case, I read another Yunior story today, “Invierno,” about the first couple of months he and his family were in Jersey, stuck inside because of the cold, while “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about older Yunior, somewhere around the time Oscar Wao takes place (though I have to admit, I couldn’t draw you a timeline). At the outset of this story, Yunior has just gotten back together with Magda, a girl he met in college, the girl who just may be the one. Only Yunior made a mistake, though, as in major fuck-up, having a brief affair with a woman from work, a mistake magnified and confounded by the fact the mistake woman wrote Magda letters outlining every infidelity, in detail. But again, the story starts with Magda and Yunior getting back together—all of this stuff with the other woman and the letters comes out in backstory passages—a reunion that makes Yunior pretty happy.

Really, though, once you sleep with someone from work and then they write letters to your steady about it, is it even possible to come back? Yunior wants that, but of course, Magda’s not in 100 percent. Can she trust Yunior? Is it too late? Everything becomes more complicated when they realize they booked a trip together to Santo Domingo before all of this went down, have the plane tickets and hotels paid for, meaning they either have to go together or will have blown a lot of loot. Yunior sees the trip as a way to start over, while Magda looks at it as big-time pressure to be normal, to be like they used to be, and most pertinently, be together 24-7.

In the Dominican Republic, this scenario set in motion, Yunior finds it even more difficult to obtain Magda’s forgiveness—let alone sex—than when they were back in Jersey. The trip starts with a couple of days at Yunior’s grandmother’s house—not sure what he was thinking there—but then moves on to the most illustrious resort on the island, which brings up all kinds of socioeconomic issues that serve as a backdrop to the story. Magda, in the sun and elegance of this Dominican resort, looks better to Yunior than she ever has, and maybe that’s because he can’t have her or even be close to her, or maybe it’s because she really is better off now that she’s distanced herself from him. In either case, the trip to Santo Domingo does not go as Yunior had hoped, and even though he knows he only has himself to blame, it’s hard for him, at this stage of their relationship, to recognize that.

I won’t go any further into the plot, having revealed enough already, but Yunior runs into other people on the trip, people who play roles, both major and minor. As with all of Díaz’s Yunior stories, there’s also the predominant theme of Dominican masculinity and machismo, questions that come up in all of his work, whether Dominican men are scoundrels because they’re Dominican, and if it’s something they can avoid, or at least outgrow. This is the primary question that Yunior faces, both in the past and present, making the stakes in this story beyond what happens between him and Magda: There’s an existential identity crisis at work here, one Yunior is still working through, at last we checked.

Junot Díaz is one of the great talents the writing world has to offer, and as far as I can tell, he can do no wrong. I feel gratified that I finished This Is How You Lose Her today, the same day I’m finishing this yearlong adventure, fitting for both chapters to close at the same time. I’ve read a lot of great books this year, and this final one can be placed right at the top. I know I’ll read many, many more great books in the future, too. Not sure when I’ll write a post next, or even what New Year’s Eve holds in store, but hey, Story366, stay safe out there, have a great 2017, and I’ll see you on the flipside.

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