Laura van den Berg took nearly a decade to write “Antartica,” a story in her collection, Isle of Youth. My story, “Mannequin,” was not albatross-level-maddening to complete, but it took many different shapes before it became what it is now. I felt klutzy writing it, like it kept slipping out of my hand, falling to the ground and picking up all the dirt I hadn’t swept away. It’s a cousin to the van der Berg story in that way (and they both take their protagonists through two narrative tracks that occur at different times). I hadn’t read her story until long after I completed “Mannequin,” and there was some relief in finding that story. It’s a gorgeous one, delicately crafted, mysterious even if it was a struggle for the author to get it right.
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit how my story first came to me. It stemmed from a sort of cheesy experiment on my part. I might have to close my eyes to type this. In a short period of time I had come across A LOT of stories reliant on footnotes. When I say reliant on footnotes, I mean most of the story seemed to be in the small print down below. I was having a hard time seeing the font even with my glasses let alone finding how this pattern benefitted the story. The back-and-forth frustrated me as a reader and editor. I started thinking of a better way to use the form. My “better way” was nothing of the sort.
Now this might make you cringe as it does me. My unsuccessful idea was to write a sentence-long story where each word was footnoted, each note some sort of tangential aspect of the story. The footnote-font would be only slightly smaller than the original sentence. There would be no escaping the fact that the story was really the subtextual story. I was gimmicking as a reaction to what I felt were unsuccessful usages of a tool, that when used well, can be quite revelatory. If it is not obvious to you already, this was a terrible idea. It was trash. That’s where I dragged it on my desktop.
But I liked the opening sentence I wrote. It was about abortion and Teen Mom. So, I started fresh. The next passage included a teen dad wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, like I had seen on an episode of said show. That image cracked open a lot of questions for me. I was brewing about this idea of the difference between a present-day teen wearing it as opposed to how someone felt about the band when their album was first released thirty years ago. What if that 40-year old (that listened to the band when she was a kid) was dealing with an unexpected pregnancy? What if it was slightly in the future? It rolled so far away from Guns N Roses, that it turned into another story altogether. That story has little to do with “Mannequin.” (Or maybe it does?) I couldn’t have gotten to this story if I didn’t write that other story first. Sometimes I wonder if they are telling the story of the same woman in two different periods in her life.
After that story was completed and all mentions of music were cut, I still felt the specter of the Guns N’ Roses t-shirt. Like it was worn in the pit, beer-spilled and sweated over, and its presence made itself known. I started writing about how songs can mean so much to you, especially when you’re young and haven’t quite grasped the knowledge of your place in the world; that they somehow translate your feelings for you. And how friends share that same pop cultural language. Opinions about music, clothes, art, the artifice of things, become tribal. Are you friends because you all like the same things? Or do you like those things because your friends influence you to like them? I also couldn’t stop thinking about this girl I knew in junior high.
She was blonde and curly and mature. It was the last grade of junior high. I can’t remember her name. I want to call her Sherry. I want to call her Mandy. The truth is, she was probably a Jennifer. And she loved Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and wasn’t afraid to admit it. It was a little heavy for junior high. I’m sure people listened to it, the videos were on MTV all the time, but did they understand it? I didn’t. I didn’t know it was about drugs and sex. I didn’t know that the moans I could hear in the song were real. I didn’t know what real moans meant. This girl, so clear still in my head, was tall and dimpled, almost how Sandy turns out at the end of Grease. So very over our home economics sewing project: pillows in the shape of your first initial. She told me about the sex noises as I stuffed my “M” with cotton. She smelled like smoke, which could have been from her mother or father driving her to school but I liked to think of it coming from the pack she had hidden in the pocket of her jean jacket. She appeared dangerous but more so she seemed whole when I was made of nothing solid. I was so ignorant about everything, so unable to access the basic tenants of what it is to be a person in the world. I needed her. This girl was only at school for a year. She came from somewhere else and soon she returned there.
The construction of the young self often comes from the destruction (and reconstruction) of others. That girl’s figurative disappearance from my life made me impatient to grow up and fill the void she’d left. The character Jen (Filly) wouldn’t have, in her own way, confronted her teacher if her friend wasn’t in trouble. Conversely, she wouldn’t feel so comfortable driving around with Tara if she didn’t feel some sort of threat from her teacher. I wanted to approach this through a first-person narrator that doesn’t have access to crystalline thoughts and deductions because they’re in the process of making them. I wanted to write a story about someone forming. Someone who’s learning to speak. Someone becoming the subject of their own lives.
MELISSA RAGSLY’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Hobart, Southern Humanities Review, Split Lip, Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue and translated in Edizioni Black Coffee. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and lives in the Hudson Valley. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.