After all, it’s easy to fall. The difference between the things you want and the things you don’t want is slight. You can have anything you want. You just have to believe that what’s happening is what you want. You just have to believe that what you want is what’s happening. Or else the entire landscape lifts.
“Between Our Legs”
From The Night is a Mouth
Exile Editions 2008
I expect a story to describe an event. If a text announces itself as story or fiction or narrative, I look for an event- or least for eventishness. I look for something to have happened.
I suspect this is a fairly common expectation.
“Between Our Legs” undermines this expectation. We are about to be told what happened by someone(s) who aren’t sure what happened. Or how it happened. The essential question of who did what to whom IS this story. And in revisiting this question, as the details unfold, we are invited to consider what’s at stake in determining what happened, and just how what happened gets determined or indeed remains indeterminate.
This much we can tell- two young women, presumably young teenagers, Sophie and Glo, meet two young men, Miles and Winston, and “do it.” Twice. But what was “it” exactly? Well, sex, obviously. But just what just what happens in a sexual encounter can often be an ambiguous affair. Was it what Sophie and Glo wanted? When they were wanting what they were wanting, was that it? Did they do it to themselves? Or was it done to them?
This ambiguity is announced in the title. Would I read the title differently without knowing what I know of the author, without bracing myself for the abject when I hear Kathy Acker cited as influence on a blurb on the book cover? Between our legs should be a site of pleasure and desire, and I do read this. But I also read it with anticipation of bad things happening. Inappropriate touching. Between our legs. Under my thumb.
Between our legs- between whose legs? Between Sophie & Glo’s legs? Between Sophie and Glo and Miles and Winston’s legs?
The space between our legs also gapes like the open mouth that is the night in this volume, where everywhere desires are not met, and hunger, and ache, and thirst, and need dominate.
I brace myself, and read on.
There is a section before section one.
This is the prologue? In it we are given a signal. A television signal. A sign. A test pattern. I brace myself.
Sentences are short. Diction simple. Clear.
“Between our legs, we hold the difference.”
This, I think, is important.
I read as female. I can’t not. How can I not?
“How did it happen? We’re not really sure. How did what happen? We’re not really sure. At first we waited. And then we waved. We saw them and we stopped waiting and we started waving.”
Stevie Smith’s poem crashes into my mind:
“…Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”
Are they waving? What happened?
Was what they were waiting for inevitable? Were these the only choices - passive victim or active co-conspirator in their own drowning?
“We had our hair tied back. Thick shiny twists that hung like commas. Punctuation suspended- we had it tied up in our hair. Punctuation suspended- along with disbelief.”
The girls pretend to know. Punctuation suspends belief. Now is the time when the fantasies become dangerous. Pretending to know is treacherous.
They prepare for it. Apply deep purple lipstick that makes their lips look “fat and swollen, like hammered out thumbs.” The assonant low short u vowel sound darkens the tone of this eerie image: smudged, thumbs, guns, fluttered.
This clearer foreshadowing of violence is quickly followed by the girls’ first insistence “We did it- we did it. We did it ourselves.” If you are an agent, you can’t be a victim. If you are a subject, you can’t be an object.
A lawn signs say Keep Off. No human will say it in this story.
The feminine gets lighter and fluffier in proportion to the dark, slick violence of the masculine. The girls dust themselves in gold glitter, while fluttering feathers float around the flash-back of Glo pinned against the bathroom door by a sleazy boyfriend of her mother’s. Gold dust everywhere.
“The breeze swirled its way round our bare legs, up through our mini-dresses and around our necks. Our teeth chattered, Our nipples poked through the thing cotton.”
Oh, the vulnerable flesh of exposed thighs on a bleak Canadian night. How cold we have all been.
“We tried not to want the things we wanted: to look nice; for someone to look at us nicely; for someone to worry because they cared; to not care either way. No way.
We were holding it, this longing, between our legs so no one would see. Yet someone saw.”
This grim truth- female desire must be hidden at all costs. Own it, and you’re a slut, inviting anything and everything. Deny it, and you’re a victim.
Now the boys see. And they speak. They see how the girls stomachs look like they’d “been hollowed out.” Like “they were barely there. Like something was missing: drive or care. Like they’d give up easily.”
Miles and Winston didn’t give up.
And the girls, in turn, feel brought into being by the weight of the boys. And then the girls fell. Girls fall down.
They insist: “there was nothing to fight.” And the awkwardness of this repeated phrase draws attention to itself. Not “there was nothing to fight for” (they’d give up easily) or “there was no reason to fight,” (hands tied behind their backs), or “there was no one to fight (they really let us go.)
There was nothing to fight.
It is nothing that they are fighting. They bring nothing into being through the struggle. Give it substance. Am I making too much of this?
“We’re not really saying much. We’ve got not much to say. Did you do it? Yep. Did you do it? Yep. We did it. Who cares? Did it hurt? We won’t say. We won’t even ask. What’s that on your face. It looks like blood. Who cares? Let’s talk of other things. Let’s not talk at all.”
How does this story work? The same way that we tell ourselves that “the difference between what we want and what we don’t want is slight.” Through repetition and uncertainty.
How did it happen? How it what happen? The dominant narrative voices, the young women, Sophie and Glo tell us over and over again what may or may not have happened. Yet their insistence and need and repetition create uncertainty. They protest way too much. Are the interruptions from Miles and Winston more authoritative? They, themselves, are uncertain- the girls’ purple lips could be stained with lipstick, or blood. Through repetition, they also reveal their need for a particular event to have occurred. Does the story as a whole determine what happened, the balance of represented perspectives weighed?
But a story does not weigh itself. And “what happened” exists in the space somewhere between narrator, text, and reader. Between our legs, if you will. Only you can construct what happened. And, like Sophie and Glo and Miles and Winston, you will probably construct it out of your own need for some things to have happened and some other things to not have happened.
“You just have to believe that what’s happening is what you want. You just have to believe that what you want is what’s happening. Or else the entire landscape lifts.”
Katherine Parrish learns about how we read stories from her students at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto. She researches digital poetry and poetics through her studies at OISE/U of T. She is a contributor to the Agora Review. She has a Rock Choir. She likes bugs. Her website is here.