Caitlin Horrocks: “Sun City”

11/01/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 24, 2011.

Now here’s a relationship I haven’t read about before: Rose, a rudderless twentysomething lesbian bartender, heads to Arizona for the funeral of her grandmother, Vera, and winds up spending time with Vera’s roommate — and probable partner, though she can’t speak of it — Bev. The story stretches the course of one tense day, as Rose and Bev pack Vera’s goods up for the consignment store (neither one wanting anything), although there are plenty of perfectly paced flashbacks to explain Rose’s complicated relationships: “Vera’s story was beautiful and sad to her–how long it had taken to find Bev, to find herself. It was a story that had allowed Rose to love her grandmother less complicatedly than her mother hand been able to.” Her mother, Iris, calls a few times as well, illuminating the broken family dynamics: “The Old Vera had been a drinker. The Old Vera had been sharp-tongued, quick to insult, frequently cruel…. They had all figured out a way to live around, rather than directly with, one another–the restaurant reviews mailed to Vera, the notes of congratulations that Vera then sent to Rose.”

This is the passive-aggressive tone of the story, too, which is unable to be direct in its conflicts, its sexuality, its relationships — which is what you’d expect of two strangers being united on the occasion of a loved one’s death. (“Sun City” would make an interesting one-act play.) Iris wants to be talked into coming down for the funeral, Rose wants to confirm that Bev and Vera were a couple (which would give her hope for her own life), and Bev is trying to find a way to come to terms with her own unfamiliar grief. (A very large woman, Bev’s size is described as “armored, untouchable, as if nothing could come at her that wouldn’t bounce straight off.”)  They should be dealing with these issues, but they instead lock themselves into safe and distant actions, “Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons . . . . When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.”

As with onion-skinned life, the peeling of Vera’s unknowable, innumerable layers brings more questions and more tears:

She didn’t seem especially proud of any one ability or accomplishment, her family included. Moving in with Bev had seemed like an explanation that justified everything, misbehavior and devotion both. But if Vera had died alone, surrounded by Kokopellis and pictures of someone else’s grandchildren, with a roommate, a guinea pig, and an estranged daughter, then what was her excuse? What was her life, and how small, there at the end, if it was without love?

Especially shocking are a series of revelations from Bev: (1) “Your grandmother knew, you know. She knew what you were,” she says, prompting Rose to drink herself silly, longing to “be back behind the bar, where the problems were always everybody else’s and all she had to do was listen” and then, when she returns, (2) that Bev has kept something of Vera’s — a treasured necklace — and that she harbored feelings for Vera, feelings which quite possibly were never reciprocated: two women wanting the same thing, unable to find a way to ask for it, and settling for a deep friendship. There is hope there, in an entirely earned ending that features Bev attempting to swim (“Can’t ever stop learning. That’s when you die”), Rose making a new cocktail for the two of them (“jewel-bright, showy, with floating, separated layers. If you looked closely, you could see the layers already collapsing together”), and a series of touching images involving childish things (a Hamburglar cup) and adult realities (“‘Medicine,’ she offered, and they drank, as if it might be some kind of cure”). The story is so well-written that these elements — especially the unknowable ones — nonetheless work together. What do we reveal and acknowledge, and how do we then live with ourselves? Perhaps we remain at a distance, perhaps we self-medicate (drink) to get through the days: a certain sort of life endures, and we continue to convince ourselves of happiness.

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