This story captures the intensity of pre-teen life in all its aching glory and vibrating physicality. If you’re looking for a story that’s an example of how to create a strong voice for your first-person character, read this one!
I was going to sleep in a museum—with any luck, next to Asau Abraham, a boy so gorgeously Jewish he held the entire Old Testament in his name, in the perfect contours of his face. I had this theory about boys, that if they just got close enough to me, and sort of focused in, they would forget about the obvious deterrents, the glasses, the frizzy hair, the underdeveloped body. I was zany, I really went for it, I knew all the good dick jokes. Everyone talks about personality like it’s a bad thing but the fact is, without one, you’ve got nowhere to go but ugly.
It’s the beautiful people, isn’t it, who most often wind up dead or alone?Kristen Iskandrian,
Look at how much we learn in this opening. The use of the sleepover in a museum and the word ‘boy’ tells us this is probably a contemporary, realistic story told from the perspective of a school child.
“I had this theory about boys” strongly indicates our main character is female, as does ‘underdeveloped body’. (It still could be a boy, but to me this all read like a girl.)
By the end of this opening we know that this is going to be a story about desire, longing and fears. Yes, it’s about a schoolgirl’s relatively chaste desire to get close to a particular boy in the exciting, transgressive overnight setting, but it’s about deeper issues too.
We also have a question that, hopefully, piques our interest: will she get to sleep near Esau? It seems unlikely, knowing school rules the way we do, but it’s enough of a mystery to pull us into the story, to make us give it a chance to charm us.
The Plot Thickens
We know that our character, Jill, wants to sleep next to the object of her affections. By the third paragraph, the author has introduced us to a major obstacle to this goal: Esau’s mother is one of the chaperones.
Jill, in a lovely display of character, declares that this is not necessarily a dealbreaker, and suggests a way it could actually work to her advantage. She wins us to her side with her can-do spirit.
Iskandrian loads up the story with observations about life as an elementary schooler–the seats on the bus, the Cheeto dust ‘like pollen’, the irresistible lure of the polished rocks in the museum gift store—but sprinkles them through the story, reminding us of our protagonist’s age. This works well because Jill has some thoughts, feelings and vocabulary that seem pretty precocious. By keeping her emotional responses to her surroundings those of a younger child, Iskandrian keeps us believing in Jill.
And before too long she gives us a deeper desire for Jill. Not only does she want to be with Esau, she has something she fears too:
I just loved boys so much, it was a sickness, it was a secret. I had to pretend I didn’t love them as much as I actually did. I didn’t want to be boy crazy. Once boy craziness becomes your signifier you can’t be taken seriously. Your art would be ignored. I worked so hard on mine…Kristen Iskandrian, Good With Boys
The meat of the story, the action, follows Jill through the night as she pursues her desire. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say the author chooses just two incidents to illustrate Jill’s journey, and the story stays short and vivid, and always resolutely in Jill’s personality-packed thoughts.
The story ends the morning after the sleepover, as the children exit the museum and assemble for an activity outdoors.
Jill has learned something. She has changed. She is a different girl than the one who entered the museum.
And yet, the author leaves us with a beautiful visual image that allows us also to see a glimpse of the Jill from earlier parts of the story. She has learned something, and she has changed, but I was reassured by the hint that she still the same person: moved by beauty and unable to give up on herself.
Read the story in Best American Short Stories 2018
Read an excerpt in ZYZZYVA No. 109
The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.