This post appeared on Andrew’s Book Club during Short Story Month–May, 2011. I’m reposting (with revision) in June because that’s how slowly this blog moves.
FIRST get your character up a tree. Then throw stones at him.
Who said that first? I’ve been repeating it for years. I’d tattoo it up one arm and down the other if it would make my stories as trouble-filled as “Virgins,” the opening story in Danielle Evans’s debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. It first ran in the Paris Review, then was selected for Best American Short Stories 2008.
Two Mount Vernon girls, Erica and Jasmine, lie to their mothers and take their cousins’ I.D.s to go clubbing in New York City. They also bring Michael, their friend and guardian angel. He keeps trouble, in the form of other guys, away.
Erica likes a good time but she’s not rushing to grow up. Whereas Jasmine’s been lugging a suitcase of anger and hurt for months, since a friend of Michael’s took her virginity and ditched her.
Here is the difference between Erica and Jasmine: Early in the story, at a movie theatre, they spot the guy who deflowered Jasmine. He’s got both hands deep in the hair of his new girlfriend and they’re kissing–deeply, intensely and in the middle of a crowded theatre lobby. Jasmine demands,
“When are we going to be that kind of girl?”
And Erica says,
“What, the stupid kind?”
At the club in Manhattan, the bouncer waves the girls in but turns Michael away cold. (This was the base of the tree, for me: two underage girls stranded in an adult club without their protector, Erica feeling, then burying, her anxiety.)
They dance—sexually, grinding—with men who come up behind them. Then they hit the bar. Erica pretends to be a college student. It’s mobbed; they get separated. (Stranded again, she’s higher up the tree.) Erica pretends to be a record store clerk, then a newspaper photographer, letting men buy her drinks.
Eventually, she finds Jasmine flirting with four men, bombed.
We’re going to an after party, Jasmine says. In the Bronx.
Alarmed, Erica says no, but things happen too fast. Someone has an arm around her. The valet brings a car around and the men get in. Jasmine sits on someone’s lap and drapes her arms around his neck. (Erica, high in the tree, is afraid to leave Jasmine.)
With seconds to make up her mind, she squeezes into the backseat.
(She’s now so far up the tree she seems stuck—indeed, she’s in a crucible–at which point the writer needs the guts to pick up a slingshot.)
Jasmine tongue-kisses the guy whose lap she’s on, escalating the situation as the car speeds toward the Bronx. (Stone.)
The man sitting shotgun informs Erica that she has an “attitude problem,” making clear that the balance of power has further slipped. (Stone.)
The man says,
“Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
–intimating that the evening is far, far out of the girls’ hands. (Stone.)
“Like hell we are.”
–signing away whatever may have been left of Erica’s autonomy. (Stone.)
And Jasmine’s lying; Erica’s a virgin. But in a sense, so is Jasmine; she’s a naïf when it comes to trouble this ugly, and innocence is what she’ll lose tonight.
They park outside an apartment building near a bodega. They enter a lobby, then an elevator. (Skull-cracking stone.)
Someone presses eight. (Stone.)
Erica considers an act of violence, about hitting Jasmine or pulling her guy off of her.
The doors open on five.
Evans stops time for the critical seconds the door is open. Here’s Erica, in those seconds:
There was nobody standing there and I kept waiting for the thing that would stop us, and then I thought, Nothing will stop this but me.
And she bolts.
(Stone for Jasmine, now alone: Will she be gang-raped? Will it be brutal? Will they let her go?)
Erica runs down the stairwell and out to the bodega. She calls Michael. It’s two-thirty in the morning. A lesser writer might resolve the tension here, but Evans throws a final stone, forcing Erica to one more decision.
I love how the story left me cleaved at the end. Weeks after reading I’m still halfway down a staircase in the Bronx, late at night, relieved to be free—yet also trapped in an apartment with Jasmine, hearing the lock click and the men laugh.
I’m grateful to be reminded: