Review | In the Time of the Girls, by Anne Germanacos
BOA Editons, Ltd., 2010
Sixteenth-century Catalonians used to say, “May no new thing arise.” People wished each other, with this farewell, a peaceful existence, a stasis that denotes happy absence of the pain caused by change. Change takes energy, moves us into frightening places. In Anne Germanacos’s debut collection of stories, In the Time of the Girls, the author writes of the kind of change we do not want or expect—real, transformative occurrences that have the power of bodily metamorphoses—and the pain and ecstasy that inevitably result.
The title story speaks to both literal and figurative metamorphosis; its prose reflects the fierce maternal desire and joy the narrator (perhaps a teacher who loves her students or an older presence in the lives of a group of giddy teenagers) feels for “the girls.” However, the narrator is also speaking out of the loneliness and loss she feels at the end of her association with them—“I’m not sure what I think or know anymore, now, in the days of the departed girls. You could even call it the death of the time of the girls.” As the reader moves through this story—a series of isolated sentences and short paragraphs, sometimes very loosely connected—the unusually poetical structure creates the sense that it is the whole group of girls, all their small actions combined, that has the narrator enthralled:
Girls. The kind of things girls do. The kinds of girls on this earth. The things they wear, and what they eat (or don’t eat). What they think sex will be (and what it ends up being, for girls, still not women). What girls do to boys. Girls riding horses. Girls cutting their hair or keeping it long, getting gum stuck in it, high up near the scalp. Wearing boots, sandals, flip-flops (mostly flip-flops). Barefoot girls stepping on glass, pulling glass from an instep, watching the blood drip onto dry dirt. Smiling. Unhorrified. Or, horrified, screaming.
The girls’ names are iconic, though it’s clear from the references that these girls are modern, not goddesses in the classical sense:
Artemis’ elaborate dreams, her money, her jewelry, her clothes (blue sunglasses) . . .
Demeter’s hair in ponytails, her funny teeth . . .
Athena’s rage to make words say things she doesn’t yet know . . .
The junk food Hera buys for them.
Artemis’ soy milk.
Demeter’s vegetarianism . . .
Athena’s worry that she’ll become like her Italian grandmother whose bra has made grooves in her shoulders from being weighed down with breasts.
As we move through the short images, separated on the page like the lines of an epic poem, we get a sense of the narrator’s love of the action, the movement that these characters create together as they struggle toward womanhood: “The way they pushed all the boundaries, wanting to be part of the same thing. Wanting, in essence, to be not many but one.” The narrator finds beauty in the characters’ desire to be other, in their forward motion toward change; the reader feels her elation at being caught up in this swirling mass of oneness that the characters make as they grow, shedding their girlishness and trying out the roles of adulthood with the fearless power of those who have never felt the pain of real change—or perhaps those for whom change is a constant state:
Girls eating buttered toast.
Girls making boys jealous.
Girls without siblings. Girls with too many brothers.
Adopted girls. (Aborted girls? Pinpricks of being floating out to sea?)
The luck of boys.
The insult of girls.
Girls with hovering mothers.
Girls with clothes strewn everywhere.
Squeaky clean girls.
Girls feeding boas.
Girls birthing babies.
Giving blow jobs.
Girls crying out in pleasure.
Girls listening to other girls, in neighboring beds.
Whispering girls. Girls running like the wind. Cantering horsey girls!
Here we see the lovely side of change—the kind that does contain pain but is full of the hope of the future. This opening story serves as a summoning of the Muse, a way to depict one detail of the larger subject Germanacos will treat: the phenomenon of constant gain and loss, of growth, decline, and regeneration. Germanacos’s unique prose/poetic format serves to draw the reader into a medium where the poetry of the single line or image is juxtaposed again and again with other, quite separate images, so the sum of the whole creates a message much greater than its individual parts.
In another story, “Until We Go to Sleep,” a much quieter, more hopeless kind of metamorphosis takes place—a depiction of what we lose as we age and prepare for death. The narrator’s parents suffer from dementia, facing the imminent departure, not only of life, but also of memory and language:
Don’t pretend you didn’t know: cells can’t go on living forever.
People fall apart, sometimes in front of your eyes.
Here, Germanacos uses the characters’ loss of language to explore the nature of words, and how they are inextricably linked with thought:
Orpheus and Eurydice
. . . how does one say things without words when the sense of a word’s departure is stronger than one’s possession of it?
Like Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, the word falls apart.
Germanacos herself displays the imagination necessary to put oneself into the difficulties of another’s suffering as her narrator is drawn into the very language of the elderly characters:
Sometimes, weird sentences run through my brain, as if he’s speaking to me, from inside my head, and his logic has replaced mine.
Because the garden was almost too wet.
His dinner the other night, and then.
Germanacos’s gift here is like that of a great actor—she not only gets the lines right, but she also adopts the mannerisms of the people she depicts, down to their lapses and strange omissions.
The author uses another device to admirable effect in this story and elsewhere: a quiet shift toward action in the middle of what initially seems to be just a slow, rhythmic series of images. At first, Germanacos’s technique of stringing together small portions of prose merely gives the impression that she is describing a large picture, focusing on one, then another aspect of the larger work:
They called to say: “We’ve lost the street where we parked the car.”
They called to say: “We’ve lost the street where we parked the car.”
The end is always just around the corner, but sometimes it seems as if the street between here and there is long and if you walk slowly enough it may go on forever.
Toward the end of every meal, when the rest of us are sitting with our hands in our laps, my mother says: “I’m sorry I’m taking so long.”
When did she become such a slow eater?
Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
And then, without a great deal of drama, Germanacos adds action, and the list becomes a narrative:
Eyeing the dark soil in the yard, prepared for new plantings, she said: “I can see you’ve got our graves ready.”
The only real them there is.
You make them grow old, jump them across huge expanses of time, trying to prepare. Just when you’ve finally accepted the fact, they appear jaunty, high-spirited; you’re ashamed.
With this small insertion, Germanacos transforms mere poetic imagery into the complexity of story. This determination to ignore the separation of the two links her work to the classics, making a metamorphosis of the writing itself, as well as of the characters within it.
In another story titled “Boundaries,” Germanacos uses this same trick to push what starts out as a rich vignette into the forward motion of narrative and, ultimately, depicts a profound life change in her main character. Elizabeth, who is about to lose her son Jonah as he goes off to college, becomes increasingly involved in the lives of the homeless people in her neighborhood:
The homeless people shower on the sidewalk, using the green-and-black hoses hooked up to the houses. Sometimes, by mistake, they leave their free-sample bottles of Prell on Elizabeth’s steps. Her son Jonah grabs a bottle, brings it inside. She makes him take it out again, leave it where he found it. “It’s not yours,” she says.
She sees him wondering if his mother’s all right in her mind. In a few months, he’ll be leaving. Is he worried about himself, or about her?
Elizabeth is filling the space that her son will leave, transferring the caring that she does for him to the homeless, whom she gets to know better and better throughout the story. She leaves Jonah’s outgrown shoes on the steps for the homeless to pick up; she notices that she has the same shoes as a homeless woman; she invites the homeless people to a neighborhood barbecue. In the final scene of the story, there is a garage sale:
Apparently, the husband and wife weren’t looking for anything in particular. It was just a good day for them to be out with the baby . . .
They said afterwards that the mother of the baby thought the baby’s father was holding her; the father was certain he’d handed the baby to her mother . . .
The homeless people were down at the shelter, biting into croissants and tarts.
While the neighborhood searched along the sidewalks and in alleyways, upstairs and inside houses, the baby was eating almond paste pressed to her lips on fat childish fingers.
With this small detail, Germanacos leaves the reader with a sense of surprise and the understanding that important developments can occur without a great deal of fanfare.
Elizabeth becomes more and more interested in the lives of the homeless people she encounters, perhaps subconsciously pushing Jonah out of the center of her life’s stage. On the day that Jonah is set to leave for college, Elizabeth runs into the homeless woman whose shoes match hers:
Elizabeth walks close, stands near. Each woman’s feet, clad in 803s, are a mirror of the other’s. Sadness makes her bold. “Are those really all the clothes you own?’’
“These are what I got today—but I’m always adding, subtracting.”
Elizabeth wants desperately to tell her there’s going to be an extra room in her house, but just thinking it brings tears. Leaning forward on the bench, the clown woman takes her hand, looks at the lines, and offers her a whole new life.
With this final shift Germanacos illustrates the power that very small actions can have, both in prose and in our lives.
Germanacos’s characters go through their changes very quietly, bearing their pain very carefully as they move through the small places they occupy in the world. Sometimes, with a force as desperate as it is silent, they seek to release themselves from the pain just a little, affording themselves some respite from their discomfort. “Twenty-nine Stones for You to Hold” concerns a small farming town in Greece. Here the characters, both human and animal, know that they cannot avoid transformation.
The Patient Goat
Have you ever seen a goat take a running start in order to get up a steep incline? It was a full-sized goat, a she. When I came around the bend, I saw the two other goats, one large and one a kid go up fast, without a hitch. They stood on a ledge of rock, not exactly waiting. She tried to follow them but couldn’t go beyond a certain point. It wasn’t a great distance, only ten feet or so, but the incline stopped her. She went downhill backwards.
The second time, she took a running start. I watched her strain at the same point as she had before but this time she made it.
In these observations, each again with its own short title within the story, it is understood, in a way that perhaps animals do better than people, that pain is a means to an end, a necessary process:
Yesterday the man brought the new piglet. He parked his truck in the driveway and, seeing me through the doorway of our house, called out: “Do you have a piece of cloth I could use? The pig shat and I can’t grab hold because it’s slippery.”
I went outside and pointed to an empty animal food sack. “Will that do?” “Yes,” he said, and wiped his hand on it then clamped his hand over the piglet’s curly tail, grabbed a pink, sensitive-looking ear and hoisted it over the side of the truck. He carried it that way for two hundred yards. I kept thinking the pig would slip from his grip but it didn’t.
The piglet went directly to the much larger sow. She didn’t flinch or run away but stood still, knee-deep in slops. The sun was warmer than it’d been in months. The little pig nuzzled her tail and each of her trotters, and eventually her snout. They ate side by side, slurping. Later, we found them lying together as the sun went down, the piglets snuggled into her belly, her head against his.
The story called “Sundering Twins” perhaps best illustrates this devotion to the power that can come from growth, no matter how difficult. An overweight teenage girl and a skinny, bespectacled boy exchange very awkward fumblings in a closet, under a small but transformative skylight. The girl compares herself unfavorably to her sister, “the other twin, the one with hair she can sit on, jutting bones, and clear skin,” who somehow during conception “absorbed more of the energy, the goodness, the stuff—whatever it was—when the sperm did its job and the cells began dividing.” She likes to tell people “they were originally Siamese. Then they cut us apart, at the head, right here . . . And here, she’d say, pulling down her sock and pointing to a place rubbed raw by the wrong shoes.”
Under the skylight in her closet, the girl and boy perform their little acts, once again without a great deal of fuss, just enough motion to relieve their discomfort, and then it’s over:
She says: Is this how you do it?
He is un-resistant, worm to bone. The stuff in her hand wiped off on the red corduroy bag filled with ticket stubs and empty lipstick cases.
She is sodden, heavier than ever with the knowledge that he’s capable of giving in a way that merely leaves stuff on her hand.
Next time she’ll try her mouth.
For a few moments, one feels the emptiness of the encounter. Something should have changed, but there is nothing; boy and girl still seem alone, unmoved by their efforts to move on from family and childhood, truly severed. But then there is an unlikely discovery:
He looks at her, to his left, as they walk south on the east side of the street. He lets her take the inside part of the sidewalk because someone once told him to. The sun in his eyes makes him smile at it or at her, they’re holding cold drinks on a cold day, the sun shining down onto sparkling ice.
“Careful,” he tells her, grabbing her jacket and arm underneath. “ Don’t slip,” he says, suddenly sure of himself and the thing that went between them. The people on the street go around them, now that they’re touching . . . they’re both amazed at how little it takes.
And, just like that, a tiny but powerful push transforms what we thought was a poetic rendering of the static moment—a movement scarcely noticed, that utterly changes something from what it was just a few lines before. We are left with the sense that pain, as the catalyst for struggle, can sometimes create an astonishingly beautiful thing, one that changes us for good and surprises us with the force of the joy it brings. With In the Time of the Girls, Germanacos uses her gift of depicting the pain and joy of metamorphosis with equal precision, demonstrating the distortions and beauty of each, so that the reader feels both the weight and the value of change.
Anne Germanacos is the author of one collection of short stories, In the Time of the Girls (BOA Editions, 2010), which was selected for the American Reader Series. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.