“Bittersweet” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).
Here’s another instance where I thought I was losing my (admittedly rather tenuous) grip on reality. I realized immediately that I’d read this story before, but knew I hadn’t read whatever the e-book sample was for this volume. I just flat out bought it and started reading it because I knew I liked the author’s work. It turns out where I’d read it before was in the author’s second collection, Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories.
On re-reading I found the metafictive elements of this piece to be somewhat distracting. That wasn’t a problem the first time through because I was less familiar then with some of the details of the author’s life. Still, once I was able to put all that aside and really focus on these two characters for themselves, I liked it every bit as much as I did previously.
Dault and Jerrod are high school kids. They are also a couple and, as with the rest of the collection, that fact is no big deal.* Their troubles stem from one source – Jerrod’s lack of self-esteem. From their dialogue and Dault’s thoughts we get that this is a perennial problem that’s grown worse lately because Jerrod, a diabetic, is about to have surgery to fix a problem with one of his feet. He’s worried the effort will fail and amputation will be necessary. It’s not a great situation for anyone to be in, but especially not a person prone to negative thinking.
The first scene is set in a coffee shop, and the children’s fairy tale The Gingerbread Boy gets woven through the conversation. It feels innocuous but comes back to play a key role in the allegorical next part of the story. Jarrod makes some mistakes at this point, certainly, but one can understand that he never acts out of malice. He’s just a scared, confused kid trying to deal with issues that it would be hard for an adult to face without breaking down.
I’m not sure if Dault and Jerrod will live happily ever after but the end of the story leaves me believing there’s at least a possibility for that to happen, which was surprising and also very welcome.
*I can’t say enough how much I like this trend. I firmly believe that storytelling has the power to shape and re-shape the world. As David Baboulene writes in The Story Book, human beings learn two ways, either through direct experience or through analysis of facts. Usually you get one or the other, but in storytelling you have both. You’re able to “experience” the story events while retaining the ability to stop and analyze what’s happening. Even better, storytelling allows you to get inside the mind and heart of a person (seemingly) unlike yourself, and feel what it’s like to be them. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes builds empathy, and empathy will save humanity. While there’s still a great need for stories that focus on LGBT people gaining acceptance, there’s also much to be said for ones that model a universe in which it’s no longer an issue.