NEW YORKER Stories
Marisa Silver's tonal masterpiece, "Temporary," weaves its narrative in a double helix. In the foreground — perhaps it would be better to say, "at the start" — we find two young women living in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. The women met at a temp agency. Shelly, the other woman, didn't get a job — she doesn't seem to need a job very badly, and is not, as she puts it, cut out for office life — but she did offer Vivian the opportunity to rent a room in her loft. Vivian had recently come to Los Angeles from her native Oklahoma. By the time we learn this, in the second paragraph, we know that the story is being told from Vivian's point of view.
In the fourth paragraph, Vivian's temp job at an adoption agency leads to mention of the fact that Vivian herself is adopted. This introduces Vivian's parents, , and from there to a discussion of Vivian's decision not to try to find her birth mother. "You didn't always want to know everything." The tentative, unexamined nature of this thought (sometimes you did want to know? would knowing everything ever be an option?) suggests a state of mind that is also comfortable with the temporary. Everything about Vivian's life at the moment is temporary, and there is a great deal that she is aware of not knowing. A natural buoyancy enables Vivian to manage well enough in an atmosphere of persistent, low-grade uncertainty. Vivian is certainly not numb or disaffected, but her connections to people are easily washed away. To some extent, this lack of attachment seems, in the story's terms, to be a function of Vivian's being an unremarkable, "under-the-radar" woman.
Shelly has a boyfriend for a while, an earnest young man called Toby. One night, Vivian comes home from work to find that Toby is in the loft by himself. This disconcerts her, partly because the bathroom lacks a door but mostly because she is alone with a plausible man. When Shelly does not come home and Toby presents himself at Vivian's bedside, she doesn't think twice, but slides over to make room for him.
"Just for now," he whispered into her neck as he began to move faster on top of her. He was boyish in the way he announced his orgasm, and she felt protective of him as he rested, spent, in her arms. She wondered if she cared for him, if it mattered to her that tomorrow her would likely be gone for good, Shelly having obviously had enough of him. Was it possible to care and not to care at the very same moment, the way it was possible to be a husband and not, a parent and not?
These questions refer, second, to Vivian's being the adopted daughter of a man who is, therefore, "a parent and not," at the very same time; and, first, to a time when, unknown to him, Vivian caught her father treating another woman in an amorous manner. At the time, her mother was hospitalized with a chronic illness that nearly killed her then and that would indeed kill her three years later. Vivian never mentioned what she saw to her father, which is an excellent way of "not knowing everything." The questions also suggest that the story of Vivian's time in Los Angeles is not the real story. It is simply a sequence of events that, near the end of the story, threatens to dissolve altogether. Vivian knows that her temp job will come to an end soon, and that (thanks to her night with Toby), she will have to find somewhere else to live. So far as outward effect is concerned, everything in the foregrounded story is inconsequential. But it is also the consequence of the story in the background, which prevails at the end.
This is where the story masterfully unwraps the pearl of its tentative, inconclusive sensibility. The story ends with Vivian's mother's learning how to smoke a cigarette properly. Knowing that, with this recurrence of her illness, she is really going to die, the mother throws caution (and consequence) itself to the winds. "They had dinners of crackers and canned cheese if they felt like it." His jewelry business failing, Vivian's father brings a necklace home from the shop, and fastens it about his wife's neck with the same amorous gesture that Vivian saw him make with another woman. It can't matter now. When Vivian's mother, blind by now, smokes her first cigarette, she doesn't seem to know how to exhale, and she expels the smoke in little puffs, as if she were a tropical fish.
"But I can't see. How do I know when all the smoke is gone?" she said, her voice coy, flirtatious.
"You don't have to worry about that," he said, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. It'll all come out in the end."
She smiled and took a drag on the cigarette. She let out a smooth trail of smoke. She kept her eyes closed as Vivian and her father watched the delicate curl of smoke dissolve and disappear, like sugar on the tongue.
There is no real alternative to the temporary in this life.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press