Sting

by Mike Russo profile

Memoir
2021

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, October 2, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

In this fragile world, how can we cling to our seams, hold everything together? Falling to pieces in the absence of the smile that used to hold everything together. Lives are built by those who fill it; how do you rebuild in desolation? Not the same life, not the one that rings in your mind memory after memory, beams that glimmer through your sinews so briefly you barely have time to register the rusts.

There you are, immersed in the economical dreaminess of the child’s eye view, hardcoded networks we lose as we learn to stitch together the world as adults: “The front yard is green and has lots of grass, but you’re not supposed to play there.” Everything latches together effortlessly, the world overgrowing always with new thoughts, new rules, simply Russo and Liz as they wheel out into ever opening possibilities: “Her legs are longer than yours so she catches you and makes you it, and then you’re too slow to catch her so you don’t feel like playing tag any more now.” The way children apply inflexibilities, certainties that as things are, so they must be necessarily, in the core of their beings these things entwined. Things just are, as a pagoda that defies the reader’s capacity to imagine it, which just is, as if there is no reason it could not be: “The pagoda is made out of concrete and looks like a little temple … It’s maybe half as tall as you are.” A toy pagoda made out of concrete, like a garden sculpture, but one that’s half the size of a child? Maybe the disjunction of a dream, the way our memories overload with presences, as in the aside ellipsised from the quote earlier: “(“pagoda” is probably the fanciest word you know right now, though there are lots more to come).” Your memory is flickering, things are appearing which should not be there, as when we try to GET ON SWINGS: “Wait, there wasn’t a swing set yet when this happened – my mistake.” The future is invading; there’s something wrong; we feel a sting.

There you are in the bay tacking to the wind, Russo and Liz deluged in a turbid stream of sailing terms immersing us in the quiet industry of movement, a ballet gauntlet of cues demanding poise, demanding you ride the stream as if you were generating it. Movement that can’t be explained, that supersedes every action, an orchestration. We are plunged into the unspoken connection between two twins who are in the sea both unified and utterly alone, an elemental dialogue. “You play the sheet out an inch or two, loosening the jib. Liz sees what you’re doing and adjusts the mainsail to match.” Everything rushes forward, you cannot hold on, the linear progression of the game, its mercurial and impatient parser, feels like its racing along without you, annoyed at how you’re slowing it down, and yet the momentum is too much, you cannot let go, you cannot let go, electrified suddenly with the sting, you try to heal it, but still the world comes back together in a light voice: ““That’s salt water, genius,” Liz says.”

And yet the world pulls. Liz returns from France, and Russo takes a moment to explain how much he missed her. She half laughs it off, again excitable Liz against the trying to be gracefully perpetually dismayed Russo, who, “as Liz has never tired of informing you, you are lame, and after sixteen years you’ve finally learned to embrace it.” And yet the world pulls. “Since summers stopped being sailing in Nantucket and started being bussing tables on Long Island, you’ve stopped liking them nearly as much.” Soon, Russo will be cast again upon the whirlwind zeitgeist in which across continents we are stranded with only a phone to communicate with those whom our hearts hold closest, though we admit this bridge does not hold, with Russo supplying reasons why he cannot call anyone on the phone, how he, jolted with the thought of Laura, decides to let the silence swell.

To fill the silence, as Russo gets older, the prose starts to presuppose the listener, reflecting a growing selfconsciousness, a nervous enmeshing of everything in a skein: “Liz’s stuff is a) hers and b) honestly pretty boring, just clothes and jewelry and that sort of thing, while her room is almost always c) a godawful mess, so you don’t see much reason to go in.” Things have to hold together, there has to be a way to fill in the world with details, details that stay where they are, that do not vanish, per this sentence which tries to ensure the reader’s brain buzzes with connections: “There’s no reason to go down into the basement. It’s small and unfinished, crammed with boxes and pieces of furniture that your mom couldn’t find a place for, plus the laundry machines. The only interesting thing about it is that it gives onto a crawlspace running under the rest of the house, which you spent a bunch of quality time in when you helped your uncle install some security cameras last month (the neighbor kid was sneaking in and stealing cash).” Russo’s repeated assertions that we should not pay attention to the basement collapses into his breathless attempts to fill it in with details. Everywhere a story to be told oozes glue between seams, and yet they widen just as Russo reaches a story so poignant, one he relishes being able to tease Liz with forever, we feel it, the stinging, the fraying, and the reader finds themselves in a house unwelcoming, with furniture that holds no stories, not for us, a place in which we feel like a stranger, in which Russo’s thoughts are, much like House of Leaves, “jammed into a space too small for it”, a house so much emptier on the inside than the outside; is it so strange, then, to expect the sting, to see it coming, to simply put on a sweater first to protect as much as we can? And the voice rings true from across another distance, even as it falls into silence: “There was an awkward minute when she asked how things were with Kaylee, and when you said “fine,” she got a little intense and asked if you were really happy. Even you could tell your “yes” was unconvincing, but while Liz can see through you as easily as you can see through her, she didn’t call you on it, just said a couple times that you deserve to be happy, and then let it drop.” The way we overcompensate for distance with sudden thrusts of intense emotional intimacy…

And the memories cannot hold, we find Russo in a post-pandemic world, and yet there is something the present holds: “Since last March, there are fewer cars and more people in your neighborhood, which is about the only thing about the past year that’s a change for the better – well, you revise your thought after glancing down at Paria’s belly, maybe one of two.” Russo goes through some names, deciding why they all don’t work. Paria and he go for a pleasant walk. And yet there is the bitter sting, but this time the world does not fray with the sting, the moment holds on, the memory holds together, because there is something to build a life with, and you can see it there, already filling up the world with stories. There will be someone to tell this one.