Caroline, the protagonist in Mary Miller’s story “Another City,” is so affectingly forthright it’s difficult not to be entranced by her roaming thoughts paired with brutal directness. This is a character who attracts a crowd while telling stories at happy hour because of the speed with which her mind races and the comedic timing of her insights: “I wait for [my boyfriend] to say more but he doesn’t. He is a great pauser… [his pauses] can go on so long I nearly have a panic attack every time he pulls into a Wendy’s.” This conversation occurs while finding out the reason for her boyfriend’s tardiness. It’s because one of his “cute” students got bumped by a car. By “cute” he meant “She’s a good student.” Still, Caroline presses him on the relational dynamic.
“Are you attracted to her?”
“No, Caroline. I’m not attracted to nineteen-year-old girls.” And then he asks what I want for dinner. Do I need him to pick anything up? What do I want to watch on TV later? There are so many arbitrary questions that he would like me to answer, but I’m still thinking about the girl who cracked her pelvis and if he wants to fuck her.”
But Caroline is capable of more than humor. Her insights are just as moving as her one-liners. Referring to her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, with whom she has a complicated relationship, she says, “I want to call her over to the bed and smell the chlorine on her skin, brush the tangles out of her hair. I’d be so careful, so careful.”
And what would humor and insight be without existential proclamations: “To be alive is a goddamn miracle.” Caroline knows what’s up.
And this is essentially what the story is about. A celebration of being alive in the wake of a divorce and a general sense of unease and unhappiness, along with conflicted notions of how to handle her boyfriend’s daughter, which is really the heart of this story, all contained within, I’d guess, 2500 words. And in that timeframe, we understand the strained relationship the narrator has with her boyfriend, a relationship that has lost all the luster of those early days of any “in love” relationship, and the boyfriend’s daughter who Caroline wants a relationship with, but she’s just not sure what kind: quasi-parent or friend.
I’m probably not the best person to be discussing anything Mary Miller writes with any amount of objectivity. I’ve been enamored by her work since the great discovery of Big World, her debut story collection published by SF/LD Books (Hobart’s publishing arm), however many years ago. Her work then and now is marked by what Hemingway discussed as men and women working at love. And yet her stories are about so much more.
For instance, early in “Another City,” Caroline see-saws between wanting to scold her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, for her carelessness (leaving a cast iron skillet on open flames for so long it “glows bright red… about to burst into a fireball”), and the tenderness mentioned above—about wanting to spend time with her. Maybe hangout in her room to listen to records and “watch how fast she can text.” We know there’s an underlying envy and interest in the girl by all the wonderful observations. That she’s “breezily confident” and “beautiful.” That she can get away with “sloppiness” and for Caroline, that’s what “galls [her] the most.”
But what really “galls” her the most, or perhaps what is simply a sad resignation, is that Caroline is stuck with a boyfriend whose featured strengths are his pauses (remember, he’s “a great pauser”) and how he gets “so messed up” on whiskey that “he can hardly speak.” Oh, the charms of relationships! Meanwhile, Hailey is in love with a girl who lives in another state, and exhibits all the signs of experiencing that naïve love: long FaceTime conversations that enable temporary amnesia thus causing her to neglect basic responsibilities such as turning off a stove.
And maybe I was wrong before. Maybe this is actually what the story is about: how it’s unrealistic for us to stay in that “in love” giddy space forever—the butterflies, etc. But for a passionate, sensitive romantic like Caroline, there will always be a part of her that clings to those people who are still blind to what their relationship will inevitably become—that being “in love” can’t last forever. Yes, “to be alive is a goddamn miracle.” But maybe the real miracle is that some relationships last. Some relationships work. And work well. Maybe the real miracle is the existance of some alchemy that binds people together past the butterfly stage. Not only binds them together, but maybe even sustains them. That, truly, might be the real “goddamn miracle.”
Check out Mary Miller’s fantastic story here.
Mary Miller is the author of two novels, Biloxi and The Last Days of California, as well as two story collections, Always Happy Hour and Big World. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Pushcart Prize XLIV: Best of Small Presses 2020 Edition, The Best of McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, and others. She is a former Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi (2014-15) and Michener Fellow at the University of Texas.