“The Coat of Stars” by Holly Black from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press, 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.
This seems like an appropriate story to review on National Coming Out Day, a good story to read to start a conversation about not keeping silent anymore.
Rafael Santiago is heading home to New Jersey to spend the Fourth of July holiday with his family. Many years earlier he escaped from what he thinks of as “the suburban ghetto”. He’s made a life for himself in New York as a theatrical costume designer. Mementos of his designs decorate his apartment alongside awards he’s won for his work. He’s proud of his accomplishments, but feels his family doesn’t really understand him, and that they don’t want to. Always during his past visits “Certain unsaid assumptions were made.” He’s not the only member of the family with a truth no one will dare to mention out loud; his married sister has just moved back into their parent’s home. She and her ten year old son have set up camp in Rafael’s old room. He suspects they are victims of domestic violence. Though it’s only the afternoon when he arrives the house is dark and his sister is asleep on the couch. Rafe tiptoes into the kitchen, where he’s greeted in whispered tones. Could there be a better introduction to this family? It’s hard to imagine one.
I don’t think it’s possible to explain how well-crafted this story is. Every single element introduced at the beginning gets paid off in the end. Multiple story threads are woven together in what feels like an offhand manner, but isn’t. Several fairy tales are mentioned, as well as what appear to be inconsequential details about Rafe’s work, the current affairs of his family members, moments from his childhood, and tidbits about his childhood best friend Lyle’s more tortured existence. They feel like nothing more than flavoring, but every last detail does double duty. They’re like bread crumbs leading Rafe along, helping him find the answers he needs to solve the story riddle.
You see, Rafe was in love with Lyle, and it wasn’t unrequited. Back when they were fourteen they made a plan to run away together to the big city, only Lyle committed suicide before they could. Rafe has never stopped loving him. The magic in this story means that what seems to be final doesn’t necessarily need to be. The moral turns out to be similar to that of The Wizard of Oz. You know that maddening moment when Glinda tells Dorothy she’s always had the ability to go home? Rafe, too, already possesses the tools he needs to solve the problem of life without Lyle. He only needs to look within and realize it.
The thing I find most incredible is that, as complex as this story was, it felt like a fast read. It felt short. It’s hard for me to judge the actual length of the piece because I read it on the computer, but it felt like the blink of an eye. Not incomplete, mind you, just brief. Overall, I found reading it to be an exhilarating and intimidating experience. The bar was already impossibly high; this propelled it skyward.
I’d like to see a sequel to this story, though I don’t think it would end happily-ever-after. I suspect that what happened to Lyle in his childhood has left him too damaged for that. Sure, he might stay with Rafe because he is truly loved by him, and safe with him, but I don’t know that Lyle is capable of being the partner Rafe desires. I’d still like to read it. As much as I kvetch about desiring stories that end on a high note, the truth is I like pathos more. You couldn’t have torn me away from the television last night during the broadcast of The Nance.
(Cue Depeche Mode.)
Anyway, the things I cherish most in the world are contained within this story: technical theatre artistry; family; the big city; pathos; love. It’s all wrapped up in a contemporary story enhanced with the tiniest hint of magic. If a person set out to make me a fan for life, they’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to do it than this.
And speaking of technical theatre, one final thing. It says in the text, “He only loved leaves if they were crafted from velvet.” I wonder if the author knows how true that really is, for some people. I suspect it was always there, but I first recognized that sentiment inside myself while we were on vacation in California, at the Universal Studios theme park. The entire park was phenomenal, of course, but the thing I took away from it, literally and figuratively, came from the gift shop. I bought what appeared to be a fist-sized chunk of asphalt but in reality was black-and-white speckled latex over upholstery foam. It looked exactly like the real thing. If you were to throw it at someone—say, at a sibling—I suspect they would flinch and it would be delightfully satisfying. I didn’t have any siblings, so I sat in the backseat of our car and stared at the rock all the way back to Chicago.
That foam rock made my heart really, really happy, in the same way that the bag of spray-painted beach pebbles packaged in a leather pouch marked “Gold Nuggets” (a souvenir from an earlier vacation), did. The same way the plastic food in my pretend kitchen did when I was much younger. With those earlier items, though, I never understood what it was about them that I liked so much. Probably it was the whole Universal Studios experience, and hearing all the behind-the-scenes folk talk about why they loved their jobs that did it, though certainly I was well acquainted with the concept of technical theatre before then. My mom was a graduate of the Goodman School of Drama; my father was the true Shakespeare buff of the family, the one who championed our yearly trips to the Stratford Festival in Canada; and our trip to California happened in the first place because we were going to see a one-man show by my mom’s friend Michael Kearns.
I’d heard rehearsal space and dressing room stories. I’d had my mom cover my eyes when a bloody severed head landed at my feet during one of the plays put on by Stratford’s second company. Something about that rock, though, made it click. I realized that I like things that look like other things, but aren’t. The more the imitation looks like the original the better I like it. I became a prop person and for twenty years earned a living by making things that look like other things. I have a house full of such things, and a phrase I utter to justify adding a new item to the collection: It makes my heart happy.
So yeah, “He only loved leaves if they were crafted from velvet.” She nailed it.