Recent Work By Sharon Harrigan

Why would Peter Cameron, a twenty-first century American living in Manhattan, write a period piece set in postwar provincial England? I was intrigued. Coral Glynn, Cameron’s sixth novel, is a departure from his most recent work, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. That critically acclaimed book is a smart, quirky first-person coming-of-age story about an urban teenager filled with postmodern angst, written with the edgy nerve befitting our post-terrorism, neo-Prozac age. I first discovered Someday through my now-teenage son, since it was originally marketed for young adults. If it is not on your radar, it should be.

When I arrived at my first arts residency, one of the composer fellows said, “Welcome to Paradise.” Even Dante and Milton couldn’t have imagined a heaven such as this: three meals a day and two quiet rooms for work and sleep, with views of apple-stealing horses and complacent cows. All real-world distractions banished—even sex.

Since I lived only an hour away, my family came to visit. That morning, I shaved and showered meticulously, then slipped on lacy undergarments, even though my eight-year-old daughter was accompanying my husband, so he wouldn’t have a moment to linger on my lingerie.

We squeezed into a booth at the only open restaurant in town, slurping runny omelets and sucking our straws, my toes seeking the bare skin above James’s socks under the table. When Ella rose to marvel at the animated carousel horses, he cupped my thigh. His touch felt novel and naughty.

I showed them my bedroom after lunch, and when Ella went to the bathroom, James stroked my belly, then squeezed my breast. I immediately replaced my shirt as Ella started opening the door. James whispered in my ear, “Thanks for letting me steal second base. On our next date can I go all the way to third?”

We continued heavy petting when she wasn’t looking. When she was, we held hands and I slipped my fingers into his back pockets. We copped feels with our eyes. We weren’t an old married couple any longer. We were virgin teenagers with a crush, longing someday to score.

To have him this close and not be able to actually have him was titillating. I wanted him even more since he became fruit just out of reach.

We left my bedroom and I showed them the studios in the barn. “Don’t look in the windows!” James warned, shooing us away. “Naked people,” he whispered in my ear.

“A nude model posing for a painting?” I suggested.

He raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m not that naive. I know what you artists do.”

Then we gamboled through the meadows and fields while Cole, one of the photographer fellows, took our portraits with an old-fashioned accordion-style camera on a tripod. He hung pink bed sheets to filter the low-in-the-sky, harsh December light. I was as sensitive to James’ touch, as we pressed hip-to-hip to fit in the frame, as if this was our first time.

At dinner, my family gone, Cole confessed that he’d forgotten to hide some sex-shop photo montages in his studio before Ella entered it. “I don’t think she was paying attention, though,” he said. When I told James that story later on the phone, he chuckled. “If only Cole knew what we’d been up to.”

We’d planned on hiking after the photo shoot, but James had a cold and wanted to rest, so we returned to my bedroom, where Ella sat in an armchair and lost herself in a Hardy Boys mystery. James and I sprawled on the double bed, first over the covers, then under. That’s all we meant to do.

An hour later, my family drove back home, and I sat at my regular spot in the library for our daily writers’ group meeting. Alice sat at the table, her notebook open.

She said, “I’m glad you had such a good conjugal visit.”

“You can tell?” I asked.

“You’re glowing,” she said.

“Yes.” If only she knew why. I felt my face, warm and elastic, as calm as the beatific cows out the window.

“I heard something,” she said, “and wondered if you and your husband were having sex.”

She knew! “I was so sure we were being quiet,” I said, “so Ella wouldn’t hear.”

“Don’t tell me she was in the same room?” Alice said.

“It’s a big room,” I said, as if size was all that mattered. “She was on the other side, absorbed in a Hardy Boys book about vampires she’d found on the shelf.” Ella didn’t hear us, I’d convinced myself. When she reads, she’s absorbed in a fictional world and blocks out all else. She doesn’t hear the phone or door, doesn’t hear the bell at the end of recess. Her teachers have to tap her on the shoulder.

“If I could hear you,” Alice said. “I’m sure she could.” Her bedroom was right next to mine.

“Everybody heard,” I said. “We might as well have been on a stage.”

Alice nodded. “The walls are thin.”

“Heard what?” Lori, the other member of our writing group, asked, eager as if for lurid gossip, as she sat down at the library table. Who knew married sex could be so scandalous?

“In the same room?” Lori said, after I told her.

“We didn’t mean to,” I pleaded.

“I could have taken Ella for a walk,” Alice said, “if you’d asked me.”

“We didn’t plan it,” I explained. “Ella was reading on the other side of the room. James and I slid under the covers with our clothes on, to take a nap.” He was a little sick, and tired from driving. so we spooned each other. Hands moved under shirts on warm skin, fingertips fell on thighs, pants dropped below our waists—just low enough. Legs scissored, his belly still against my back. It’s a pose we perfected during my high-risk pregnancy, a way to continue intercourse while keeping baby Ella still and safe in my belly. We moved very little–not enough, or so I’d thought, to squeak the springs.

“Did she say she heard anything?” Lori asked.

“She said she heard us snore. We slept a little, afterwards.”

I didn’t tell them that as a baby Ella had an uncanny ability to awaken when we were on the brink of orgasm. Her piercing cry killed our desire, and I always rushed to nurse her. Maybe reading the Hardy Boys book and allowing us our fun was her way to give us back a little lost time.

“She didn’t seem disturbed,” I said. Did she?

“This will give Ella juicy memoir material, ten or twenty years from now,” Lori said. “Would any of us have become writers if our parents hadn’t traumatized us?”

I have vivid memories of my own parents having sex, or rather, what I now recognize as sex, but might not have then.

At five, I hovered with my brother and sister outside my parents’ bedroom after dinner. When our father opened the door to go to the bathroom, we caught a glimpse of our mother naked before she grabbed her robe and shooed us to bed. In my memory, it happened every night, but I’m sure it didn’t. Now that I’m a parent I recognize the exaggerated recall of young children, who will say “Every day you picked me up late from school” even if it happened only once, because it feels that way.

I have memories of my mother’s boyfriends, too, after my father died. Bob, the Armenian mailman, was my favorite. When I was a little older than Ella, we often tagged along for our mother’s dates at Bob’s apartment. We children lingered in the living room, eating Little Caesar’s pizza and watching Three’s Company or The Three Stooges while Bob and our mother sequestered themselves behind the bedroom door. Did I know they were having sex? I’m sure it wasn’t the word they used. I don’t remember thinking about it much as a child—only now, since I have a child myself.

I’m grateful that my mother kept her sex life private. She wasn’t like the white trash single mother in the movie “Eight Mile,” who complains to her son that her boyfriend “won’t go down” on her. My mother never let boyfriends spend the entire night, either.

I’m glad my mother slipped away for sex with Bob the mailman or Tim, the electrician with six children; or Roy, the refrigerator repairman who favored corny jokes; or David, who liked to bet on greyhounds; or Frank, the romantic. I’m glad she stole some kisses away from us to give to them. As Amy Bloom says, in the story of the same name, “love is not a pie.” You don’t slice it and distribute it until it’s gone. There’s an infinite supply.

I’m happy that my mother socked away a few hours to take care of herself, not just her family. That’s what I did at my first arts residency, nurturing my novels, stories, and self instead of everyone else. Every day there I took my mother guilt—about not being home to cook meals, help Ella practice piano, and nurse James’s cold—and tried to channel it away from the black hole that has made women throughout history disappear inside their family duties.

“Do you think I’m a bad mother?” I asked Alice and Lori after my confession.

“No,” they both said. “Of course not.” What else could they say? “Yes, and by the way, do you know the phone number of child protection services?”

Will Ella be traumatized because she heard her parents having sex? I wasn’t ruined by my parents’ erotic noises. Mostly, I am bemused that I didn’t know then what they meant. Is it bad childrearing to expose a child to parents hungry for each others’ bodies even after almost ten years of marriage, diapers, bills, and dishes?

I hope Ella learns from my residency that women are allowed to be greedy for sex and time, to make art not just babies, and to have a room of their own (or two—a bedroom plus studio—if you’re in Paradise). Maybe she’ll even be inspired to return as a fellow. I can imagine her pulling the Hardy Boys vampire book off the shelf of what was my bedroom, as the memories flood back. “Oh,” she’ll say. “Now I know what those squeaky sounds from the bed were. How did my parents get away with it?”

 

Photo credit: Andrew Palmer.

 


Recently I had dinner with the French wife of one of my husband’s colleagues, the prettiest woman I’ve met in the college town where I live. I complimented her adorable fitted two-tone dress and patent-leather pumps, and she responded: “I could never get away with this in Paris. You have to be so stylish, always the right shoes, the perfect hair.” I was wearing a loose cotton shift and hiking sandals, my clothes, hair, and shoes a pale shadow of hers. So how could I ever live in Paris?

We the Animals is a tiny gem, miniature in length but supersize in emotional effect. Hardly over a hundred pages, with chapters averaging about four pages each, the book resists easy categorization. The cover calls it a novel, and it has the arc and scope of a classic bildingsroman: a boy’s life from around the age of seven to seventeen, as he encounters monstrous obstacles on his way to manhood and finally separates himself from his family and launches into the world on his own. One reason readers will be attracted to this book is the mythic quality of its story: three brothers who live almost like wild animals because of their parents’ outsize neglect; abuse; and ferocious, self-destructive love. Because it is based on the author’ life, we can gasp at the knowledge that Torres lived through such an ordeal with his compassion and empathy intact.

“Self-curate or disappear” is the mantra of Nik Worth, aka Nikolas Kranis, the brother of Stone Arabia’s narrator, Denise. At the opening, Nik has disappeared, with only his car and guitar, shortly after his fiftieth birthday. But his curated self, the persona in his Chronicles (twenty years of mostly fantastical diary entries, interviews, record and concert reviews, articles, and obituaries) remains.

Early

By Sharon Harrigan

Memoir

When I got my period, I was only nine. My daughter is eight, and she doesn’t know what a period is. I wonder if I need to tell her, in case she is early, too.

Premature puberty is partly (some studies say 48 percent) hereditary, with an especially strong link between mothers and daughters. My brother sprouted sideburns years before his peers. At age eleven, my son’s face darkened with a mustache, and now, at seventeen, he has the beard of a rabbi. The other day my daughter said, “I have hair under my arms!” I couldn’t look. I just said, “No you don’t.”

My daughter, who is skinny and flat as the Midwestern plains of her inheritance, unselfconsciously calls herself a little girl. She prefers “Annie” to “High School Musical;” sleeps with a bevy of stuffed unicorns; and doesn’t question, as some of the boys at school did during show and tell, why her hamster has both a girl’s name and testicles. So why am I so worried about a wisp of underarm hair?

It’s not as if my early onset menarche catapulted me to nine-year-old teendom. I still hadn’t grown noticeable breasts and wouldn’t have been able to swagger my hips if it had been required for gym credit to graduate. When I told other girls in my fourth grade class that I couldn’t swim one day because I was wearing a sanitary napkin, they said, “You?” If there had been a vote in the yearbook for the girl least likely to enter puberty first, I would have won.

I paid little attention to boys, even after I was capable of being fertilized by them. I had a brother a year older than me, and we were close, listening to Wagnerian opera on his turntable and watching “Monty Python” re-runs together, so maybe that was as much boy company as a nine-year-old girl needed.

I didn’t try hard to lure boys into chasing me at recess, either before or after I “became a woman.” I wore whatever clothes my mother bought on sale at Kmart, even the pink polyester slacks with the rainbow belt that made me look more like a premature grandmother than a premature pubescent. My hair was too flyaway to feather in the 1970s style of “Charlie’s Angels.”

I wasn’t like Susan, with her naturally wavy black hair that she twisted so it bounced like a vertical Slinky at the side of her face. I wasn’t like Laura, with her long blonde hair down to her behind, her brown suede boots and rabbit fur jacket and beckoning index finger. Everyone thought those two would be first to get “the dot.”

That’s what Jenny Alexander, my best friend since I was four years old and she was seven, called it. My mother hadn’t explained menstruation before its plague hit me, so I was lucky Jenny had.

It didn’t feel lucky at the time, though. Jenny was twelve, and I still hovered on the childish side of nine when she told me something big had happened to her.

“Give me a hint.” Guessing games were one of our favorite time wasters during those long, boring Michigan summers. We both had single mothers who worked full time, mine as a bank secretary in the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit, and hers as a Frito Lay packer on the assembly line. Most days we spent at Jenny’s more lenient house, eating the never-ending twelve packs of Cheetos her mother filched from her shift.

We whiled away unair-conditioned, unsupervised Julys squirting Jenny’s mutt Rusty with the hose and letting the water drip down our cut-off shorts, transcribing the lyrics into a spiral notebook to memorize, singing along, “Afternoon Delight” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” I had no idea.

“It’s the thing after a sentence. That’s what it’s called because it’s also the end,” Jenny said. Under the dark of our makeshift fort–a blanket covering a card table on Jenny’s front porch–we pressed Ken and Barbie into each other’s naked plastic bodies.

“The end of what?” I asked.

“Of being a kid,” she said.

“Does it hurt?”

“That’s why they call it Eve’s curse.”

“You mean like Original Sin?” Jenny didn’t go to Sunday School like I did, so I wasn’t sure how she knew that phrase. Probably from a TV commercial about Summer’s Eve, a feminine cleanser that came in a box with a woman wearing gauzy clothes. She floated as if she didn’t even have a body, let alone one with dirt so different from a man’s it required a separate product to clean it.

“No!” Jenny let out a puff of air the way she always did when she got impatient with me.

“Can we just play The Game of Life?” With its tiny plastic cars and stick people, its tidy path from career to retirement, Life was my favorite game.

“All right, crybaby, I’ll tell you.” Jenny cupped her hip. “I got my period. You know what that is? Blood on my underwear. Want to see?”

I shut my eyes.

“Like a dot at the end of the sentence,” Jenny said. “I got my dot!”

I didn’t want to tell her how afraid I was. Of the unknown, of adult responsibility, of losing control. But mostly I was afraid of the dot dragging Jenny away from me. Three years is a large gap at that age.

“Do you know where you’re going to?” Diana Ross sang through the window on the radio and, like that sentence, all mine ended with question marks, not periods: Would Jenny become a boy-crazy mean-girl? When it happened to me, would I become more like a vampire or a werewolf? Wonder Woman or the Incredible Hulk?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Soon after Jenny announced her “dot,” I got mine.

Besides my mother, I barely told anyone. Jenny was normal, a twelve-year-old pubescent. At nine, I was a freak.

Plus, Jenny was right: it hurt. It was also messy, inconvenient, and confusing. Why was my body preparing to have babies, when I still slept with a blankie?

Jenny didn’t dump me for boys or friends her age. At least not that day or even that year. But by the time I went to junior high and she went to high school, she talked to me only when her friends weren’t around. She got a job in the summer, and her sweet sixteen sleepover was for sixteen year olds only. I couldn’t blame her, though I spent my summer biking to the library, reading Oliver Twist, and pretending I was an orphan.

My premature period didn’t rob me of my childhood. If anything, it made me cling harder to it, since adulthood was a bloody mess.

Then why am I afraid for my daughter? Parents obsess at doctor’s visits and playdates about standard developmental milestones. It seems strange, though, to fret about being early.

Maybe the conversation I need to have with my daughter is one about behavior, not biology. Once she becomes attractive to men, she needs to be able to say no. I don’t want her to be like the narrator in Deborah Eisenberg’s story, “Days,” who remembers when she was thirteen and a stranger put his hand up her skirt on the train. She “just sat there, afraid of hurting his feelings in case he hadn’t noticed where his hand was, or had a good reason for having put it there.”

I don’t want my daughter to give herself up too easily, like the teenage Margo in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel, Once Upon a River, who climbs into bed with the first man who gives her shelter because “she did not know if Brian would force a girl, but he couldn’t force her if she went to him on her own.”

I’m not ready for my daughter to become vulnerable, the way I was, pinned to the wall of a viaduct at age ten; jumped by a stranger hidden in an alley at thirteen; and at fourteen, stalked by a man who wanted nothing more than to lay flowers at my feet, or so he said, before I ran. Maybe it is the rush of hormones I fear, the ones that make teenagers feel invulnerable, like the extra estrogen that talked me into taking the inner-city buses home at night in Detroit.

My breath shortens as I think about what my daughter will do with her sexual maturity and even more what will be done to her. I can’t arrest her development, but I wish I it wouldn’t happen early.

Maybe it won’t. If heredity accounts for 48 percent of early menarche, what about the other 52 percent? Some predictors of early onset menarche are family stress (such as divorce or death or child abuse in the family), absence of a biological father, and the presence of non-related men. African American girls are also more likely than Caucasians like my daughter to menstruate early.

My daughter lives in a stable family with her biological father. Perhaps my milestone was triggered by my father’s death when I was seven or by my mother’s boyfriends. Or maybe my body just reached out to Jenny’s in biological sympathy, a phenomenon that occurs when girls in the same college dorms menstruate at the same time.

I hope my daughter doesn’t start her menses in less than a year, but if she does, I’ll tell her it’s not like the period at the end of a sentence. It’s not the end of anything, just a bodily function like losing a tooth. With today’s improved products, she won’t miss a day of swim team, and I’ll slip her an extra slice of rare steak at dinner to keep her iron count up. She won’t be the anomaly I was because she doesn’t listen to opera and wear old-lady pink polyester pants; and the straight, fine hair she inherited from me has even become fashionable.

We all wish we could protect our children from the battlefield of adolescence, but we can’t. So let the bloodshed begin.

When I met Deborah Reed on the first day of our MFA program at Pacific University, she told me her story: She was in the middle of contract negotiations for Carry Yourself Back to Me (as well as the suspense novel A Small Fortune, under the pseudonym Audrey Braun). “Then why do you need an MFA?” I asked.

At the supermarket yesterday, I was greeted by patriotic bouquets and signs to celebrate the Day of Remembrance, next to displays of blueberries, strawberries, shortcakes and whipped cream. Has September 11th become another Fourth of July, an occasion for barbeque and red, white, and blue?

Sports talk is social currency, and following local teams glues a community together. In Light Lifting, MacLeod shows that such trivia is not trivial, but a way to show a profound commonality when so much else separates us, as well as a conversation starter when other subjects are too fraught. For instance, in “Wonder About Parents,” when a young couple visiting their family for Christmas spend an evening at a bar debating the best nickname in the history of the Detroit Pistons, they are proving that they still belong to the place where they grew up. Sports talk also allows them to avoid discussing their severely ill baby without clamming up altogether.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s newest novel has been reviewed everywhere from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly. I am lucky enough to study in the MFA program at Pacific University, where she teaches, and I would like to add to the polyphony of praise.