“Kiss Me Someone” by Karen Shepard

Happy Tuesday, Story366! It’s a beautiful day here in Missouri after some torrential (and frightening) thunderstorms last night, storms that have rendered everything green and lush. What I really should be doing right now is mowing the lawn, before it rains again and it becomes unmanageable, but it’s hot and I just wanted to sit on the couch and read. Nothing wrong with that, right? Neighbors, sooner or later, might argue, but hey, maybe I’ll mow the lawn when I’m done with this post. Stranger things have happened.

Building on what I said yesterday about the parent-child separations at the border, our right-heavy Supreme Court upheld the president’s border restrictions, policies that I’d more or less forgot about in recent months with, you know, all the other bad shit going on. Today’s reminder is a stiff and depressing one, however, as now we are, without any form of resolve, legally telling very specific people they can’t come to our country, based not on their needs, the content of their character, or their abilities, but based on where they’re from. My guess is the Supreme Court has a rigid schedule and doesn’t really hear cases and vote on them at the president’s whim—not even in this administration—but the timing for this decision is convenient, as it gives liberals and other decent folk something else to focus on, helping us to forget how all those kids were locked up, separated from their parents, and it took a lot for the powers that be to realize their fuck-up and starting reversing course. Now our attention is on this other thing—which is a giant-sized shitstorm all its own—and maybe not the lonely kids in cages? Again, I don’t think the Supreme Court timed this just to help spin the news, but it’s awfully damn convenient.

By the way, whatever happened to distracting people from bad things with really good things, like newscasts about waterskiing squirrels on the day a bunch of people are murdered? Why are we being distracted from an awful thing by perhaps an equally awful thing? That’s where America is right now, I guess: Piling one horrible act upon the last.

I regress, though, as this is two days in a row of posting and two days in a row of uncharacteristic political commentary. I have this blog and I felt it was time to say something, have it on record that I’ve not been blind or immune to the upside-down nature of the world. Still, I never thought yesterday that I’d be back at it today. Just like today, I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll be on this crusade tomorrow, whether I do a Story366 post or not. Then again, let’s see what the news brings. If the National Guard for some reason shoots all the bunny rabbits in America or the House votes to outlaw afros or something, maybe I’ll be back at it.

Perhaps I jumped on another collection today because I needed my own distraction from the world, and as an avid reader, what better way to do that than with stories? Today I grabbed Karen Shepard‘s 2017 collection, Kiss Me Someone, out from Tin House Books, as my route of escape. This is one of the pile of collections the Karen got me for Christmas last year and it’s been waiting patiently on the Story366 stack for me to call. It’s number finally came up and I enjoyed a few of Shepard’s fine stories, the first I’ve ever read by this author, and enjoyed them very much. I knew a lot of them appeared in Tin House—I always check the Acknowledgments page first—and that Shepard is married to Jim Shepard, another great story writer and Story366 subject. Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect, but did suspect some kissing.

Shepard certainly delivers on the kissing, and a lot more, in these tales. The three stories I read, “Popular Girls,” “Magic With Animals,” and “Kiss Me Someone,” all had some kissing featured prominently in their telling, but then again, a lot of stories do. All three also happen to feature a similar theme, that of their female protagonists working through rather important life decisions, and perhaps not making the best of choices. In “Popular Girls,” we get a communal narrator, a group of 80s New York socialite teens in a whirlwind of sex and drugs and generally bad behavior, written montage-style, to the tune of Rick Moody’s oft-anthologized “Boys.” “Magic for Animals,” which I admit I chose solely for the intriguing title, features Kayla, who’s wondering if she should leave her magician/animal trainer boyfriend, escaping to an old friend’s house, an old friend who is suffering from dementia. The stories couldn’t feel any more different, one a general sketch of a type of woman at a particular time, in a particular place, the other a more traditional story (though half is told from the maternal figure’s husband), one in which its hero doesn’t have the luxury of wealth or youth to explain away bad choices. Yet, in each, the women have found themselves in a predicament, wish they could regress to simpler times, but have to face the music nonetheless.

The same cold be said of Natalie, the protagonist of “Kiss Me Someone,” a woman who finds herself at crucial time in her life, a midlife crisis, I suppose, the kind where she wonders how she got where she is and suddenly isn’t so sure she likes it. The story opens with Natalie ruminating about conversations she once had with Lloyd, her husband of thirty-five years. One conversation was about what would be deal-breakers would be on a first date: all kinds of right-wing behavior (neither Natalie nor Lloyd would date John Roberts today, we’ll assume). A later conversation, from early in their marriage, on what could possibly break up their perfect union: infidelity, abuse, etc., the no-brainers that break up most couples, huge violations of trust that no self-respecting person puts up with.

Thirty-five years in, Natalie is wondering why those young lovers never thought of the little things, only considered big-ticket items. Lloyd, from the obtuse angle, has lived up to his end of the bargain: He’s been a loving, faithful husband whose work as a banker has provided a comfortable life for Natalie and their twin daughters, a big house, college paid for, all without Natalie ever having to work a day. Yet, fifty-something Natalie regrets—if that’s the word for it—that back when they made those deal-breaker proclamations, she didn’t have the foresight to picture the more subtle offenses, like how Lloyd doesn’t always talk to her when they’re alone, or how he says he misses her, even when she’s right next to him; I’m guessing they haven’t had sex in years. Lloyd’s no abuser or philanderer, but he’s not all that attentive, either, and that’s what Natalie craves: attention. Lloyd isn’t a fan of this, especially not when Natalie points it out, and this altercation leads him do something pretty messed up: he breaks his toothbrush in half and then does the same to Natalie’s and the girls’, hiding the broken pieces in Natalie’s purse for her to find later. Natalie says she forgives him, but this isn’t what she’d pictured all those years ago.

Natalie’s thoughts get drawn into action after a couple of choice encounters. One is with Susan, a recently divorced friend who has just gotten large fake boobs, boobs she shows to Natalie in a restaurant bathroom stall, boobs she persuades Natalie to fondle. Susan can’t stop talking about how her new boyfriend can’t keep his hands off of her, which, I guess, gets Natalie thinking, not really about getting fake boobs of her own, but about what it would take to really get Lloyd’s attention, to make him react in any way. Enter the second choice encounter, Cullen, Natalie’s handsome ex-boyfriend who looks like he might be wearing the exact same pair of tight black jeans he wore when they dated, some forty years before. Cullen looks good, and even though Natalie runs into him when she’s out with Lloyd, she can’t hide that she’s thinking of what might have been these last few decades.

This is where the really bad choices come in, the ones that Natalie will have to deal with, in the story and its denouement. First, she calls Cullen, which can, of course, lead to nothing but no-good. Next, she sleeps with Cullen, in his crappy apartment, in the crappy complex of which he’s the manager. Then here’s where the story really gets interesting: After the rather lackluster tryst, Natalie asks Cullen if she’ll come home with her, for dinner with Lloyd and the girls, which is, of course, the most bat-shit crazy choice of all.

I won’t tell you what happens next, as you’ll have to read the story to find out, but Shepard doesn’t disappoint, making “Kiss Me Someone” a tremendously entertaining, if not somewhat uncomfortable (as in the British The Office), story. I like what Shepard does in this piece, how she didn’t fail to surprise me at any turn, how she focuses on her protagonist, on the choices she makes, on how those choices affect the plot and outcome of the story: What I like to call Story 101. This is tied to the theme I referred to earlier, characters getting themselves in situations and then making choices that will either make things better or make things worse. To me, this is how stories are put together, what I try to do in my work, what I teach my students. Karen Shepard seems to be pretty darn good at it, which is why today I enjoyed reading from Kiss Me Someone so much.