Have I written about longing here yet? (I’m sure I have.) Every story is supposed to be stuffed to the gills with an aching desire, something pulling a character through the narrative whether they want it to or not. In a good story, longing is a taut tether that a character can neither slacken nor cut, and because they cannot wrench themselves free, neither can we.
In Juliet Escoria’s second-person story “The Other Kind of Magic,” posted in Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s Sunday Stories, the main character certainly is full of longing, but for what she doesn’t know. She’s an adjunct at a local college, but she works as a coat check girl in Manhattan to cover the rest of her bills because she “make[s] more in a night at this job than [she does] at [her] real job.” She’s in a relationship with a man she describes to another character as smart, funny, and talented, yet she lusts after her boss, a man named Tim who we know is bad news, and pursues an affair with him anyway.
To summarize it on the page like this—to reduce what she wants to sex and intimacy with a too-old-for-her club manager—flattens both the character and the story. But Escoria is able to make what should be commonplace and lurid into a deeper exploration of why the character can’t love herself enough to be good to others or to herself—or to ask, What do I want to get out of life?
Just because she can’t ask the question, however, doesn’t mean we can’t feel her desire to know the answer. To create longing in any story, the author must provide a source of dissatisfaction, and in “The Other Kind of Magic” dissatisfaction abounds: it’s in the almost-but-not-quite-perfect relationship; it’s in the unskilled, seasonal, part-time job that pays more than the “real” position requiring an advanced degree; it’s in the unaccessible view from the coat check that looks out over a gorgeous nighttime panorama, the lights on the Williamsburg Bridge described as “there specifically to impress all the girls in their tight neon dresses and all the boys in their polo shirts, as they get fucked up on bottle service and molly”; it’s in the story’s perpetual night, a time of day which is supposed to be reserved for our freedoms; and later, it’s in a casino, a space designed so that wealth is always just out of reach.
The story isn’t long—it’s under 3,000 words—but Escoria packs in the dissatisfaction just as much as the longing. Everywhere the main character goes, she rubs up against the empty space where satisfaction is supposed to be, and she doesn’t get a moment’s rest.
For the longing to feel as palpable as it does in this story, we also need hurdles. We need obstacles and impediments, sticky complications to muck up the line between desire and its object. Otherwise longing would be converted on the back-end to satisfaction, happiness, and wholeness, without ever coming to our attention.
At first glance our main character seems to want Tim, and the obstacle there is obvious enough—her monogamous, committed relationship with her boyfriend. But the hurdle in this story isn’t one of illicit lust and love: it’s the main character’s inability to recognize that she’s looking for the wrong thing to fulfill her.
To be a bit less objective, perhaps what compels me about this character is how she reminds me of a woman I used to know, a brunette with long hair and ankles dirtied by ash from campfires, who wanted so much but always reduced her choices—her world of want—to a decision between two men. We get so little information about the main character in Escoria’s story: her friends are nameless and out of focus, and her life outside work remains a mystery unless it’s connected to her boyfriend.
Usually such gaps in a character’s history would distract me, but in this case it seems to be the point. These details aren’t mentioned because they aren’t important to the main character. (And, I’d posit, if they were essential, she wouldn’t be so unhappy.) We can’t see what else could be good in her life, so the story and her longing make us feel as claustrophobic and lost as she does. Get out of there! I want to say to her. Find something else! But I can’t come up with any ideas of what, I can’t see enough of the other good around her to point in a direction and say, Maybe something like happiness lies that way.
“The Other Kind of Magic” stuck with me. I found myself thinking about it in the following weeks, which is one sure-fire sign to me that I’ve loved something (even if I don’t know it yet). So go check it out and let us know what you think.
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.subscribe to Ploughshares?