March 15, 2012
I will admit, the title of Stacy Bierlein’s debut story collection made me somewhat uncomfortable and more than a little nervous. A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends has an ominous ring, summoning imaginary scenes of one’s own hypothetical island of ex-boyfriends. In my mind, there are few things more dangerous than a group of men one once bedded, all converging in the same, small space. I circled the book for a few days, uncertain of what angle to approach it.
Fortunately and eventually, I wrangled my apprehension, and tucked myself in to the first story of the collection, from which the book’s title came. In it, Bierlein sets loose two somewhat diametrically opposed, but very close female friends, on an island where, surprise! all of their ex-lovers stand in a receiving line on the shore, awaiting their disembarking. Some of the exes are more enthusiastic for the strange reunion than others.
Can I vote them off, one at a time?
Why would you want to do a thing like that? Tammi said, smiling, giving her exes a Miss America wave. They waved back, in sync like line dancers, tanned, goober smiles and wide eyes. Mine looked down at their feet, kicked the sand. Some whispered hellos.
At the heart of this story, the question Bierlein aims to explore more deeply concerns the attainment of closure, that elusive beast so often absent in the final moments of a relationship’s demise.
At the end of that first day I see Michael and I can’t believe it…. I march over to him, lift his chin with my forefinger. What are you doing here? His eyes sparkle. Damn his sparkling eyes. You’re not an ex-boyfriend, I remind him.
Well, he says, according to the rules of the island, I am. They think I got you, confused you. That counts.
You didn’t get to me, I say. You didn’t. Not at all.
Obviously I did, Michael says, a little too smug. Or I wouldn’t be here.
Who makes these rules?”
Bierlein throws back the curtain of cattiness in female friendships, disclosing a not-so-secret game all once-scorned lovers lower themselves to playing from time-to-time: the game of judgmental comparisons, sidled with the airing of private quirks and fetishes.
Max didn’t enjoy sex unless I agreed to keep repeating after him, Whose dick is this? Whose dick is this? I made the mistake of complaining to Tammi and her then-boyfriend, Rico. All through dinner that night, Tammi and Rico kept saying, Whose fork is this? Whose bread is this? Excuse me, whose wine glass is this?
Bierlein’s fantastical lead-in allows readers to imagine what might be gleaned from the experience of revisiting past intimacies, both good and bad. She asks her audience to acknowledge and accept that there are times when a solid explanation for why it all unraveled is simply out of reach. C’est la vie.
Having secured such an engaging and hilariously awkward launching point, Bierlein moves deeper into an exploration of womanhood, motherhood, friendship, marital ambivalence, and the sexual ties which bind lovers together, but which can also unmoor one from oneself. In the story, “Two Girls,” best friends Tira and Paige take a vacation from their husbands, and travel together to the Newport Coast, determined to rehabilitate themselves from their respective, and chronic love affairs with other men.
Both would say they like husband sex better than lover sex. Women in unhappy marriages have lovers, they think, women who are cheated become cheaters. But Tira and Paige are not unhappy or cheated. They have good sex with their husbands, but somehow they cannot get things right. They love love, and so they fuck with their luck.
Over dinner the friends play a different version of the “judgmental comparisons and airing of dirty secrets” game. They call it Petty Yourself Out, or P.Y.O. The object of this game is to confess and compare the odd, repulsive traits of their lovers, as a way of solidifying their resolve to end their affairs.
Tira laughs. The candlelight makes her blush sparkle. Mine has a lame tattoo, she says. I love tattoos, Paige says. She had wanted Brian and her to get tattoos together before their wedding. Brain had refused.
Not this one, Tira says. It’s the Texas A&M logo. It’s across his right upper arm, a huge red T in the middle.
You’re kidding…. Texas?
I’m not. It gets worse. He’s from Houston–she takes her voice to a whisper–and he’s a Republican.
This particular story ends in an unexpectedly dark and violent way, which I will not spoil here, but which further illuminates Bierlein’s ability to surprise her readers, keeping them off balance just enough to push the energy of her narrative to surging. Twists such as these also confirm that Bierlein’s stories are not of the one-trick variety.
In the story, “Traffic,” a young woman named Margo preemptively grieves what she had believed was the beginning of a love affair, ignited just before leaving the country for a year. She return to L.A. to find the man she’d been yearning for while she was away, curt, emotionally distant, and extremely well-attended by other women.
At Lola’s, he does not have to tell her there is someone else in his life. Tonight her instincts are green. So to save him the tensions of explaining, Margo says, She must be wonderful, this woman who has captured your imagination.
His mouth opens, stunned. Yes, he says. Margo rolls the stem of her glass in her fingers. He fidgets, so Margo keeps talking. What are the things you love about her? She asks, then wishes she hadn’t. She has gone too personal too soon; she has gone too far.
The story is an uneasy dance of precarious emotional states; jealousy, grief, insecurity, rejection, and loneliness. It details a universal truth which no one wants to accept, but which exists none-the-less: in any relationship, there will always be one who loves the other more, wants more, feels more. Sensing this disparity just below the surface is the seed from which neediness grows; a trait which only serves to repels the less-invested partner.
Do not be misled by the book’s fun and feminine cover, which may cause some to assume that A Vacation to the Island of Ex-boyfriends is a chick-lit, beachy, in-and-out sort of read. It is most definitely anything but. Bierlein has written an unflinching account of what it means to find, lose, and regain oneself within the melee of meaningful relationships, imparting her truth with intelligent wit, stunning clarity, raw emotion, and finely honed humor.