March 18, 2020: “Secondhand” by Sara Rauch

Good Wednesday to you, Story366!

No further updates for me to offer today, save what we know: More events continue to be postponed or canceled, more places continue to close, and more and more people are contracting the coronavirus and dying from it—the amount of deaths in the U.S. has doubled from 53 to 100 in the last couple of days. We simply can’t keep going at that pace, so hopefully, all this canceling and closing is going to help squash all that.

Now that my job is officially taking place at home, my kids are no longer going to school, and even the Karen will only go into the office once a week, we are pretty much locked in. I’m not sure it’s hit the kids yet what’s going on—especially the younger boy—who keeps asking to go to Breaktime (the local convenience store), to restaurants, and to Incredible Pizza, this arcade/pizzaria that almost certainly is going to have to close. Even if they are getting it, even if I’m getting it, the reality of a month or two like this surely hasn’t fully digested. Without a doubt, I like sitting around, reading books, typing on my computer, and watching Netflix. As much as any writer, if not more. In a lot of ways, this situation is speaking to my strengths. After a while, though, when it sinks it, for me, for us, or for whomever, that this isn’t a choice, perhaps by law, I’m sure we’ll be singing different songs. For now, we’re going to make the most of it by doing things we need to around the house, like cleaning, raking, painting, and Story366ing.

For today’s post, I’m writing about Sara Rauch‘s brand-new story collection, What Shines From It, freshly released by Alternating Current Press. Like so many authors of late, I’d not been familiar with Rauch’s work before I started today. I did know this: Alternating Current made her a beautifully designed book, inside and out—even the accompanying press release is as nice as I’ve seen. That made me want to read even more—I’m a sucker for a great design—so I jumped on in, with an extra helping of vigor.

What Shines From It is made up of stories about people who deal with other people—the stories I read all fall under the “person vs. person” conflict diagram. Rauch’s protagonists face singular opponents, often people close to them, mainly significant others. That makes these stories very personal, yet tense as all hell. Rauch cleverly places her characters at crossroads in their lives, these opponents standing in their way. I’ll get to the lead story, “Secondhand,” in a bit, but I read the three pieces after that as well. “Answer” is about a guy from Boston in NYC on business. He runs into a lady at a bar and tries to pick her up, only succeeding when an ex of hers walks in and she wants to skidaddle. They spend the night together, not having sex, but doing little New York things like taking the ferry and having blini. There’s an obvious attraction between the two, only Rauch throws in two curveballs. Firstly, he’s married, but in a loveless marriage with a cheating wife. Secondly, she’s gay, the ex she ran away from a woman—in fact, unbeknowst to him, he tried picking her up in lesbian bar. Still, there’s this chemistry, and limited opportunity. Both characters have to figure out what they want to do, but more so, who they are.

“Addition” is about Alex and Rose, a lesbian couple living what seems to be the good life. The hitch here? Rose really wants to have another baby—adding to their four-year-old, Rain—but she almost died in childbirth the first time. The ball falls in Alex’s hands, only Alex doesn’t really want a kid, let alone actually have a kid. During a bad storm, the two go back and forth until an untimely accident forces them to switch gears.

“Slice” is about a dressmaker, Emmeline, who has been commissioned with making a formal gown for a movie star. Distracting her from her deadline is Sebastian, the man she’s been seeing, who wants to come over, have sex, take her on excursions, that sort of thing. She wants to be with him, but she has this dress to make, what could launch her career. She’s also concerned, as Sebastian has just gotten out of a longterm relationship and Emmeline doesn’t trust him. Turns out, that’s warranted.

Backing up to the first story, “Secondhand,” is about a young couple just moved into their own place in Santa Barbara after spending two months sleeping on a futon on a friend’s porch. Samantha, the protagonist, wants to make it a home, full of furniture, dishes, and especially a bed. Her mate, Jacob, wants to stay mobile, everything they own able to fit into a car (which they don’t own, either). Having stuff for a home becomes a metaphor for the home, or lack of one, as Sam and Jacob want different things. Meanwhile, Sam is working long night shifts as a waitress while Jacob is reestablishing his pot-dealing biz. Clearly, there’s one adult in this relationship (Hint: It’s Sam).

The bed becomes the focus of the story, Sam unable and unwilling to sleep in sleeping bags on the hard floor. She tries withholding sex—makes sense to have sex in a bed, she points out—but Jacob is steadfast, trading his horny for simplicity. Sam drags him out for a few attempts to buy a bed of some sort, e.g., a used mattress emporium, which Jacob talks her out of. The’re living in squalor in a two-room apartment, nothing to cook with, nowhere to wash, and nothing to sleep on, and he’s worried about sanitized mattresses? His own sleeping bag is probably a deluxe resort for all kinds of tiny wildlife.

“Secondhand” represents the kind of story that Rauch is a master of. Like those aforedescribed characters, Sam has to decide if she’d rather fight for what she wants or settle for what she has. It’s a neat trick, to write stories like this, especially since everything these people want is in their grasp, is right there. All they need to do is convince this other person, so close to them, to be the person they want them to be, to simply agree with them. That’s how relationships work, though, right? Usually, 95 percent will buy you a lot of happiness. That other 5 percent, however, really starts to stick out, the longer you’re together, or as time starts to run out, be it for a business trip or a biological clock.

Sam and Jacob eventually find their medium, but it’s a foul, bastarized version of what Sam had been imagining. I won’t reveal it here, but it’s a severe ending, a worthwhile finale to this story, and a helluva way to start off a collection.

What Shines From It is an admirable debut, Sara Rauch writing a good story, time after time, skillfully rendering her characters as she renders them apart. I got emotionally attached to these people, in just a page or twom Rauch having the innate ability to do pull that off, seemingly without effort. Glad to have read from her book today, to have spent time in these dilemmas, to feel all this longing, all the frustration.