July 31, 2020: “The World Has Many Butterflies” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Friday’s here, Story366!

Seems like there’s a million things I could write about today, be it Trump’s Tweet about postponing the election, the microcosm of a COVID outbreak in MLB, or my continued push to the end of the semester, coming this weekend. I haven’t even commented on the BLM movement as of late, and don’t think I’m mentioned what’s going on in Portland, not at all.

Nearly two weeks ago now, I did post about a close family member contracing the virus. That person is one of my sisters, who’s not making this a secret, though I’ll still withhold her name, which one of the three it is. When last I talked to her, Wednesday evening, she was still sick—ridiculous fever and body aches—and in fact feeling worse than she had a few days before. That sucks, to put it mildly. Today is the two-week point of her contraction, the day that she’s supposed to be feeling better. Maybe she is—I just wrote and asked. She remains in the forefront of my thoughts, however, making everything that’s happening very real and very close to home.

Today I read from Curtis Sittenfeld‘s You Think It, I’ll Say It, out in 2018 from Random House. This might be my first reading of Sittenfeld’s work—unless I read a story or two somewhere—work that has been quite successful, bestsellers and such. I found out today she can write a heckuva story, too, all of them here in front of me. In fact, she’s edited this year’s forthcoming Best American Short Stories anthology, which I look forward to every fall. So, she’s a writer with a lot of things going her way, and it’s nice to finally feature her here at Story366.

“Gender Studies,” the opener, is about Nell, a gender studies prof who is recently divorced and is headed to a conference. Her airport van driver, Luke, starts up a conversation—he’s a Trump fan—and she dismisses him, politely, even accepting the card with his phone number, a prompt to call if she needs anything. In her room, she realizes she’s lost her driver’s licence and suspects it’s in Luke’s van, so she has to use that number after all—she can’t get on the plane on Sunday without ID. After calling Luke and leaving a message, she goes to a conference function and gets pretty drunk, finding a message from Luke when she gets back to her room. Luke wants to meet at the hotel to return the license and meets Nell inside the lobby. Then he wants to have a drink as thanks—she offers forty bucks—getting Nell drunker. One thing leads to another and they’re in Nell’s room, undressed, this gender studies professor and a much-younger Trump-loving cabbie.

“Bad Latch” is about Rachel, a woman who takes a prenatal yoga class and runs into Gretchen, a well-to-do, gorgeous mom-to-be. Gretchen can’t stop talking about her at-home and med-free birth, her plan to stay at home, and her general mom superiority. As luck has it, Gretchen is also in Rache’s breast-feeding class a couple of months later, bragging about how well her baby, Piper, eats and eats, while Rachel can’t get her baby to latch at all. Of course, Rachel runs into Gretchen at infant swim classes, and … you get the idea. Rachel hates Gretchen,, but thing are not always as they seem, she soon finds out.

“The World Has Many Butterflies” is what I’ll focus on today. It’s the second story in the book, and while it’s not the title story, it does contain the title line, “you think it, I’ll say it.” This line appears courtesy of Julie, a middle-aged Houston-suburbs mom who falls for Graham, a local man who works with her husband, who sends his kids to the same school where Julie’s kids go. This puts Julie and Graham in each other’s presence quite a bit—anyone with kids knows how often you see those school parents—and it’s in these meetings that Julie falls for him, be it at a basketball game, after-school pick-up, or office party.

Specifically, Julie and Graham interract by playing a game called You Think It, I’ll Say It, which is a fancy word for gossip, or maybe just being a shit. Julie and Graham stand off to the side at various functions, point at the other people in attendance, and say awful things about them, negative speculations. Julie and Graham seem to have the same instincts, both skeptical of bullshit and cruel in their assessments. Maybe we all do this—with our own spouses, in private—but Julie takes special pleasure in it (we later find out her husband, Keith, refused to play this game years ago). She starts to look forward to seeing Graham again, to play the game, but really, she’s decided she’s going to have an affair with him.

News soon comes down the wire that Graham and his wife are divorcing. If Julie couldn’t stop thinking about Graham before, she’s totally ga-ga for him now, Graham part schoolgirl crush, part obsession. She looks forward to making a move—she waits until after Christmas, not wanting this deception during the holidays. Come Janury, she emails Graham for a lunch. This lunch conveniently happens at a hotel, and Julie dreams of Graham accepting her proposal, accepting her, and whisking her upstairs for an afternoon of passion.

I’m tempted to reveal how that luncheon went, exactly what happens when Julie makes her indecent proposal, but won’t. There’s a lot of story after that point, too, but I’m still going to leave this one where it’s at, let you read it and find out what happens for yourself.

The women in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It navigate through some peculiar and tense situations, not always making the best of choices, not always getting the result they’re hoping for. All of this is the ministration of a master storyteller, one who knows that peculiar + bad decision =  a pretty damn good tale, each and every time. My time with this book was as well spent a time as I can imagine—check it out if you haven’t.


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