Safe as Houses. Little makeshift, cardboard creations at the intersection of floor repair and reverie. Not homes, houses. Safe as Houses. These are not the places we grew up, but the memoirs of our life. The tiny bits, the sequences, the chapters, houses.
My cats don’t like that there are
stairs in my house. In my home, my parent’s house, there are two sets of stairs with a landing separating the bend. Jasper likes to coyote ugly up the banister and sprint for extra force onto his window seat. It’s a wonder he didn’t crash through when we lived there together my cat soulmate and I in my home. My house is where Fromage cuddles on the top of an easy chair, rips through the back panel of upholstery, where she has grown big-bellied over gravy cans. I want to make this clear; you’re lucky if you have more than one home in your life. To my mother, her home is my Grandma Shealy. My mother has taught me to cry when Miranda Lambert twangs & hums. I take that back, you can’t teach someone to cry, you can only show them. Crying is something you learn by action, not by education.
This short story collection, Safe as Houses by Bertino caught me completely by surprise. I was expecting something poetic and clammy (clammy by the way it makes your palms feel as you read), but it was something else entirely. It turned women into small houses, some with an upstairs light on, some with attics filled with trunks of naked Barbies and baby furniture, some with dank basements and some with yellow kitchens. Women as houses filled with light by the end. I loved this collection because it turns the idea of genre on its head. It isn’t a sci-fi collection, or a collection with just genre fiction, it’s a collection of literary shorts with a twinge of peculiar. Since I’m not usually a sci-fi reader, or a genre fiction reader, I tend to become unhinged when I read stories out of my comfort zone. Not with this collection.
In “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours”, an alien comes to earth to report back to her home planet, but the alien notices all the small openings in the human heart and how they’re filled with luxury or damage, small parcels of hand written letters enfolding each valve. She sees affection plucked with deceit and the tumors of the human experience. Bertino wrote as if she was an outsider looking in our world. I think that’s hard to find in a writer. We are the ants, and she the unknown predator.
When we speak to friends over tea about their love lives or boyfriend problems or the reason they don’t like a guy because he tells stories in a strange way and doesn’t get to the point fast enough, we often speak to them from a place of our own memories. It would be hard for me to completely blank space my experiences and give a friend advice from a place I have no connection with. I think it’s amazing how real the alien feels and how much I can relate to her findings. There is something incredible about looking at your world through the view of an outsider. How would aliens view my classroom, what is their concept of darkness, would William Shakespeare still be romantic if we lived on a planet filled with rice paddies and small green creatures that communicated through their eyes and not their mouths. Bertino, thank you for making me ask questions.
“The name of the planet I’m from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings. I fax them back to my superiors. We have fax machines on Planet Cricket Rice. They are quaint retro things, like vintage ice-cube trays. Human beings, I fax, produce water in their eyes when they are sad, happy, or sometimes just frustrated. Water!”
“When you’re alone, you are in the right place to watch sadness approach like storm clouds over an open field. You can sit in a chair and get ready for it. As it moves through you, you can reach out your hands and feel all the edges. When it passes and you can drink coffee again, you even miss it because it has been loyal to you like a boyfriend.”
She doesn’t stop there, in ” The Idea of Marcel,” she imagines a date with the ideal of an ex. After a break-up we think about all the things they did wrong more than all of the things they did right. We misplace the memories of sweet gifts, grand vacations, and the way their fingers feel like softened twigs in the clutch of ours. If I was to go out with the ideal with my ex-boyfriend from college, he wouldn’t have put in headphones for hours on Saturday to catch up on college football games, but would I like him? Would I like him in all his new perfectness? Don’t people always say (is it Marilyn) it’s the imperfections we love in people? My friend Nat loves boys who don’t have perfectly straight teeth (or teeth that look like they’ve been in braces). People she’s loved have spent years in in wires and rubber bands unable to eat peanut butter or chew gum, but she didn’t love that part. How would it be if the ideal of him smiled so much because his teeth were so perfectly white and in a row like choir boys of the mouth?
“What was friendship anyway? A pile of leaves and some twine. A dinner every so often. Every so often a long, shattering phone call. By defriending her, Marcel was saying, You are not worth my every so often. This bothered Emily more than the fact that she would never again smell like his soap.”
“She envied her umbrella because it knew its job and because it felt no pain. Because it had never dated Marcel and because it didn’t have to go around being human, pricing produce, and feeling emotions. Because it had never fallen in love with the South.”
In my second favorite story of the collection, “Great, Wondrous,” magical realism comes into play. Now, by now you know I have great affinity for any author that can pull off magical realism. Swoon. Bertino does it just right. I believed every second of the disappearing act, the friends gathering together to create a world where bits could just be fixed because someone believed in the power of fixing. It was a delicious little story and I may have almost cried at one part, but I held it together, people – which doesn’t at all mean that you shouldn’t read it. You can read the story here.
The sisters, the sisters are my favorite. This is partly because I’ve always wanted to see a nun without a habit and partly because I thought for a while in middle school that I might become a nun. That wasn’t due to my fondness for prayer, or the idea that I could cloak my body in Franciscan garb, but because I thought it might be easier to continue the pattern I had created to be alone and reading. It must be easy to read in a cloister, right? They don’t have other things to do like helping the sick, educating the children, or praying for peace, correct? Reading, reading, reading…
I know. I was a strange middle schooler.
“Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph” is by far the best story of the entire collection. It didn’t need the twinge of peculiar, it stands on its own as one of the best stories I have ever read. I wish this story existed when I was reading thievishly in the NC State library, sitting and hunched against one of the tall stacks and hiding between the rows. I liked to hide in the library with the homeless people that came in to sleep somewhere warm, somewhere maybe where they can hear the sweet whisperings of characters. I felt a bit foolish, and a tad criminal staying in there late into the night reading stories from different collections and piling the books around myself without at all thinking about cleaning them back up. (Sorry State book shelvers, I loved the eighth floor history and fiction collection).
I didn’t want this story to end. Even after I was halfway through my next book, Floating in my Mother’s Palm, I was still thinking about this story and putting it towards the nuns of the new novel. It was strange, I could have sworn it was a part of both books. I might just read it again after I type this review. I can’t quite put my finger on it, maybe it was the fact that it was about a woman who was becoming stronger by being a hideaway, or maybe it was the sister’s themselves cloaked in modesty, but steeped in charm. It was brilliant, Bertino is brilliant. If you don’t read this story collection, or at least the linked story above, you will be missing out on a summons from the porch light of your house. Let the bugs blink, and the pages turn.
“Once in a while, I smell Clive on my skin and it stops my day. It’s a train crossing; I wait to pass. Eventually the lights stop flashing, the barriers life. I keep moving.”