Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Other Heartbreaks by Patricia Henley

Other Heartbreaks
Stories by Patricia Henley

Hardly anyone's life turns out exactly as planned. People who swear they won't get married fall in love and then down on one knee. People who have exercised every day and never smoked still get cancer. Our bodies and hearts surprise us all the time, and no matter what our goals, we cannot control the actions of others. Patricia Henley has taken these fateful detours and written an excellent collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks.

Achingly authentic, most of the stories concern families coming together for an event, oftentimes a funeral or a wedding. The women are young and old, straight and not, and the men are just as tough and complicated. One doesn't always like them, but they remain interesting.

In "Rocky Gap," June has arrived at the family reunion with her partner Tanya, the first reunion since June's alcoholic sister, Peggy, died. June is trying to hold fast to her relationship with Tanya, but the distance is growing. Being with her crazy family for three days, she's afraid, will only increase Tanya's barely withheld judgment and comparisons to her own family.

Tanya's family is tidy and small. She has one sister; an attorney specializing in outer space law who still lives at home. Secretly June thinks: They wouldn't fart in the bathtub.

The stories are full of subtly funny lines like that closing one. The humor is a resigned and exhausted humor — As in, "Well, all of this may have gone to shit, but at least this part is mildly amusing." They're not jokes, exactly, but they show the characters' personality almost more than anything else we learn about them.

I also enjoyed "Kaput" quite a bit. In it, Bonnie is a fifty-eight year old (not sixty — "Fifty-eight is fifty-eight!") on unemployment after the university she worked for closed. She spent her retirement on a five month trip to Europe, and now she's living on school grounds, in her van.

My daughter Willow would leave the room exasperated, spitting out, "Boomers —." I wasn't simply her mother who had lost her job. I represented a generation of people about to enter their golden years unprepared. Willow, Alex, and my friend Kim all thought that I had swerved over the line and hit those hard dots on the highway that remind you: hey, get with it, you're asleep at the wheel.

Kim had sent me a ticket to Mexico. Free! For points! Willow disapproved. She had said, reasonably, "Mom. You've got to stop traveling. You're on unemployment. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as Aunt Mina would say."

Nevertheless, Bonnie heads to Mexico to meet her friend. Bonnie's life presents itself as a gripping, though slow-moving, wreck. We see so much peril already caused, but we keep watching to see if she'll ever notice those rumble strips and move out of harm's way.

Yes, all the stories are good to different degrees and for different reasons, but what I really want to talk about is the trio of stories headed under the book's title — "Skylark," "Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland," and "Ephemera." I've reread them at least three times since finishing this book, "Ephemera" especially.

A woman named Sophie March-Gonzales is grieving the death of her husband Luis. Sophie is an artist — oil paintings — and Luis worked for Ceasefire, a group dedicated to ending street violence. They live in Sophie's parents' building in a part of Chicago that used to be populated by Polish immigrants but has since transitioned into a tougher Mexican neighborhood. Her parents, Emma and Joe, have stayed put because it's where Joe grew up, and Sophie has since formed the same attachment. But now, Emma would like to move. She would like to travel Europe. They both wonder how their marriage has reached the state it is, and here Emma is in Ireland, alone:

It comes to her — not all at once like a pearl of wisdom, but in distasteful increments — that complaints that she has about Joe are little stories she tells herself to shore up her own desires. And walking down to find Liam, she blinks back tears, thinking — but not for long — of how she has deceived herself. And will.

And Sophie, poor Sophie, has understandably become a wreck of herself while drowning in grief and memories of her husband. I'm not sure how to fully articulate how much "Ephemera" spoke to me — something about the phrases Henley chose cut right into my chest and I was in it; I felt that grief and love and all-consuming despair of not knowing when she'd ever feel better. When Sophie remembers Luis, it is indeed heartbreaking and lovely:

On her birthday in April he had stuck a postcard in the corner of the bathroom mirror: a black-and-white photo of a broken-down building with a corrugated roof; the sign on the building read CARNAL GARAGE. From Carnal, Kentucky. He liked to say, "Carnal knowledge of you — that's part of my husbandly job description."

Think about the jokes you have with the person you love. Think about the things they do for you only because they know it will make you happy. Think about the things you two have together that no one else will understand.

In his arms, dancing in slo-mo to the tart Spanish guitar, what exhibitionist there was in Sophie flowered at tango. He called out the steps to their students who watched from a tentative circle. The checkerboard tile floor was a little gritty, not smooth as it should be. Buzzing florescent lights imbued their faces with a sickly tinge. A sexual current saturated her back with the pressure of his hand, his response to her ocho, her fluidity, the sharp ping of her heels on the floor. His cologne and the chemical reaction of it with his skin seduced her: the citric-tang of him.

Think about how good the person you love smells. Think of how it washes over your mind, how it makes you high. Think of the way your breathing catches when you experience even a split second of that scent. Think of how the scent's absence aches.

He had stripped off his insulated shirt and draped it over the back of the chair. A Saint Chris medal gleamed against his white undershirt. He could tell you that Saint Christopher protects travelers and bachelors, boatmen, bookbinders, bus drivers, cab drivers, epileptics, fruit dealers, gardeners, porters, sailors, and anyone at all against lightning, hailstorms, toothache, and sudden death.

Think of all you have indulged. Think of all the things you've learned because of those indulgences. Think of how beautiful the person you love is in your eyes, and how you do not care if it is the same way other people see them. Think of how you will lay down next to this person, listening, for as long as you can.

His angularity presses against her softness. Like John Lennon and Yoko. Iconic lovers. His hard-on has a nickname: Señor Amor.

"His angularity presses against her softness" is the best sentence in the entire book. It encompasses everything. When it comes to love, would that time let me, I would stay in that moment forever.

Anything ideal will not arrive easily, and ideals change over time. Other Heartbreaks is an excellent portrayal of the journeys we take to feel whole — the process we must recognize in order to do so. Henley's work is honest and resonant, and it is work to which I will return again.


Full disclosure: This was an uncorrected proof sent to me by Engine Books prior to the publication of the book. I thank them for gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.