January 19, 2017: “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.