December 29, 2020: “When in Rome” by Kim Magowan

Hello there, Story366!

Wow! Only three entries left in 2020! I’m not sure where the time went, as … who am I kidding? 2020 has been grueling, depressing year, and has moved along at snail’s pace—if the snail was asleep and not very fast in the snail world, some sort of impairment giving him the ironic nickname of “Speedy.” I’ve mentioned here in the past that Story366 has really kept me going this year, has served as the world’s best distraction to the horrors we’ve all undergone (that on top of everything else it’s done). Somehow, though, the last few weeks have flown by—probably because I finished a tough semester and Biden’s victory has brought me genuine hope—and I’ve not done a whole lot of year-end reporting. At some point, I’m supposed to list my best-of for story collections for 2020, and it looks like I’ll have two days to fit that in. I’ll also want to run down the future of Story366 after this 366-post year. Sounds like I have my next two, my last two, intros laid out for me for the year, and since nothing happening in the world today is worth noting (The Cubs trading Yu Darvish? The stimulus bill in limbo? Me lifting weights today for the first time in twenty-five years?), I think I’ll move on to the book.

Today I continue my run through the winners of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, the six books so far comprising the last six slots of Story366 2020. Kim Magowan was our fourth winner and is up today for her collection, Undoing, winner of the 2017 Moon City Short Fiction Award and released by Moon City Press in 2018. Like the previous two authors, I’d known Kim’s work going into the contest, her having published “Pop Goes the Weasel”—a story from the collection—in Moon City Review the year before (on top of Undoing being a runner-up to the contest in 2016). So, going in, she probably had a length on the field, though I remember us specifically rereading and being careful to not simply choose her book because she’d come so close the previous time out. Turns out we loved the collection still, or even more, and were more than happy to make Kim the winner, to publish her book, and have a great relationship with her ever since (two more stories in MCR).

Undoing is kind of a sad book, I’ve been reminded today, about the undoing of relationships, often because of indiscretions. Magowan writes on this topic beautifully, the characters three-dimensional and unique in their situations and personalities. But yeah, there’s a lot of funny business going on this book, and you know, it’s really all that funny.

The first story, what I’ll focus on today—I could have focused on any of these stories, really—is “When in Rome,” a story that not only leads off the collection, but really sets the tone in terms of theme and … tone. This one’s about Emily, a woman who’s married but is deeply considering an affair with a friend of hers, a man who is the subject of the story’s second-person perspective (Emily tells it in first person), the you.

In fact, if we’re keeping score, Emily and the man have officially begun the affair. They’ve done a whole lot of making out and there’s even been some trips to second base, bras clumsily removed, bodies prone on a hotel room bed. Emily insists, though, that they’ve never actually had sex, that they’ve come super-close, but are still deliberating. There’s some unreliability here, because, like, who’s she kidding?

Side bar: If this was me and the Karen asked, “Are you having affair?” and if I said, “No! Don’t be silly! Me and this other woman, we just took off each other’s unmentionables and made out on a hotel bed a bunch of times,” Karen would ask me to to immediately leave, then ask where my car would be parked so the lawyer could deliver the divorce papers to me to sign. The point of this is, Emily’s already having an affair.

Yet, at the core of “When in Rome” is this hesitancy, this patience, as the you puts it, the question of why these people don’t just go all the way, have the affair, as it’s already kind of too late. No one’s pregnant yet—that tends to throw a wrench into things—but really, both these people have been unfaithful. Emily is clearly obsessed with this man, with going through with it, as after all, it’s the impetus for her telling this story.

Magowan digs deep into this kind of situation—here and throughout Undoing—as Emily does explore why they are in this relationship and what’s keeping them from going forward,. Why not get naked, fuck like rabbits, and quit only when they either get caught or get tired of each other. First off, both parties are married and love their spouses, so they don’t want to hurt anyone. There’s kids involved, too, so that means more people get hurt. Emily has a friend who’s on her third marriage, having cheated a couple of times herself, and isn’t all that happy. The you guy talks about logistics, that neither one of them has the time to really get into this, though it’s clear he’s just making excuses.

What happens? Maybe we don’t know—not with Emily’s case—but to see the outcome of affairs like this, one needs to simply read on into Undoing. Those answers are coming.

“Why We Are With the Men We Are With” is next, and is a short. Here, an unnamed woman is having drinks with her besties, Shelley and Jem, the three ladies discussing their relationships. Jem wants another baby but her and her man never have sex because they put all their energy into their first baby. Shelley has sex all the time with her guy and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. Our narrator mostly listens (and drinks), listening and nodding, holding a secret that would screw up a lot of lives, one night, years ago, with one of the friend’s husbands, something she has over them, something that’s for her to know and them to never find out.

“Eleanor of Aquitaine” introduces us to Ellie, a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents are divorced and because of an uncommon agreement, she lives with her dad while her brother lives with her mom, the parents deciding it would be good for everyone if the genders were mixed in the settlement. Ellie has to deal with the divorce, the back and forth, both her parents dating new people, trying to one-up their ex. Ellie has a sleepover one night with her best friend, Laurel, whose parents are also divorced, but for longer, and handles it much differently than Ellie has been. The girls watch TV and smoke pot when Dad goes to bed, Ellie wondering how all of this will form her, what effect it all will have on her as adult. Spoiler: We meet Ellie, and Laurel, again in later stories, years down the road, and we get a pretty good picture of how all of this affects the girls, long term.

“Warmer, Colder” is the next story and is from Laurel’s perspective. Laurel’s post- parents’ divorce life is much different from Ellie’s, as Laurel has had a much rougher go of it (unbeknownst to Ellie), Laurel having been sexually active for some time. This story’s focused on her relationship with the adult man she babysits for, Mr. D. He flirts with her, clearly setting up the opportunity, taking advantage of Laurel by starting a full sexual relationship with her; “taking advantage of” translates to “statutory rapes,” just to be clear, Laurel 13. So, Laurel’s parents’ divorce is really the least of her worries, as she has to deal with Mr. D not wanting to wear condoms—he “doesn’t feel anything” that way—Laurel already having had an abortion and not wanting another. We also get more of Laurel later in the book, see how all of this affects her, and like with Ellie, the answer is resoundingly “quite a bit.”

I read through most of Undoing today and most if not all of the stories feature characters who are either experiencing infidelities—from one side or the other—or are living through the results of such actions, all kinds of broken homes, second marriages, step-kids, and philanderers populating the rest of the book. Kim Magowan is ridiculously talented, more than skilled enough to make each story fresh, using indiscretion as a theme and a motif, one that somehow never gets tiresome. The effect, for the reader, piles on, giving Undoing a sense of unease, of mistakes played out, for better or for worse, Kim catching people at their most vulnerable, when they’re the most interesting they’ll ever be. Beneath all the tragedy and heartache, though, she finds the humanity, making this such an easy choice for this award. I’m so glad to be friends with Kim now, to keep publishing her work, and to have so much more coming to us in the future.