I’ve heard that, for writers of fiction, crafting a successful short story in the second person is something of a rite of passage. It seems fitting, then, that Christa Romanosky’s powerful second-person narrative takes as its subject a series of contemporary rites of passage: navigating the school system, body anxiety, finding the right job, sex and its promise and consequences, illness. Erica, the sympathetic and bereft protagonist, struggles and fails to make sense of each phase of her life as it passes her by. The voice of this story, taking us in reverse through Erica’s upbringing and early adulthood, manages to be at once fraught and snappy, at once commanding and a little off.
This story is striking, in part, for its adept use of mechanical imagery in a narrative very much concerned with the living body. “Machines hum from every corner of your apartment: television, refrigerator, coffee maker,” Romanosky writes. “You are a good listener.” Erica’s mother, after losing a breast to cancer, “lopes around the house like a machine with a loose wire.” Throughout the story, the characters attend to and imitate machines with ample emotion but little enlightenment. The artificial industriousness around them comes into sharp contrast with their living, breathing, malformed selves. For this family, women’s bodies exist in a perpetual state of brokenness.
But anything broken must have, by definition, been at one time intact. And so Romanosky has written a story that stretches back toward childhood. In less capable hands, the story’s reverse chronology would feel like a simple gimmick. But here, the trajectory comes off as a necessary aspect of Erica’s search for wholeness. Romanosky also makes deft use of the second-person voice to give the narrative an authority that would be unavailable in story told directly by this self-doubting character. The events and larger arc of Erica’s life, as told to her, have a distressing air of inescapability.
So we come to understand, through the form of the story as well as the subject, that Erica cannot alter the distressing course of her life; all she can do is try to change how she sees herself, using her capacity for disassociation. When asked about her childhood bedwetting, she turns her face to the wall. When she goes to work as a hotel security guard, she imagines she is an actress playing a part. To gently underscore the point, Romanosky injects a fascination with eclipses, or, as Erica’s roommate describes one, “A speck of dust, and a century of waiting.” The story is filled with distillations of Erica’s experiences of emotional closeness and distance: “Somebody is always packing a suitcase, but no one leaves”; “This is one of many years when you don’t say much”; “When you fill out your taxes, you have the option of claiming yourself. You think about it for a long time.”
To close out the narrative, Romanosky gives us a last line that is satisfying in its tidiness, but also unsettling. The child Erica doesn’t know much, but she does have the understanding that, “If someone loves you, they say, ‘I will sit on your bed until you fall asleep.’” This promise, comforting to a child, feels increasingly ominous in the context of Erica’s later relationships. The story ends, then, on a perfectly disquieting note, suggesting but not overstating that Erica’s future holds only more, and more serious, misapprehensions of what it means to be loved.