Could You Be With Her Now by Jen Michalski (A Review)

By Jennifer Ray Morell

Michalski

Dzanc Books

167 pgs. | $15.95

Both novellas housed in Jen Michalski’s collection, Could You Be With Her Now, focus on characters who exist on the outskirts of society. While at first glance, Jimmy, a mentally- challenged fifteen-year-old boy seeking to find his television “girlfriend,” and Sandra, a 67-year- old woman who feels that she no longer holds a place in the world, seem to have little in common as the central characters in Michalski’s work, both exist as the other – those whose needs are ignored and whose subtleties are often overlooked by those around them.
In I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner, the narrative circles around Jimmy, a young teen who is mentally-challenged. His words are simple and his understanding is often confused, leaving the reader in the heart-breaking position to piece it all together. After obsessing over Megan, a television character who he believes is his girlfriend, he sets out to find her California home, which he reasons cannot be too far away from Maryland. Certainly he should be able to find her before it is time for dinner.
Though he knows that he is not allowed to venture further than the local 7-11, he receives what he thinks is permission from his brother. Within a few pages, Jimmy believes that he has found Megan: a girl in her backyard who quickly becomes frightened by his confused advances. She tries to fight him off, but as Jimmy describes, “we are up half the way when she falls asleep on me.” Jimmy never grasps the magnitude of what he has done to his “Megan.” He continues on, eventually asking for help since he is lost, still believing that she was merely “pretend asleep.”
When his brother, Josh, ascertains the truth about this trek to “California,” connecting Jimmy’s statements with the news of a murder, he tries to protect his brother by sending him on his own to hide from the police. What ensues is an uncomfortable tale, told from the perspective of someone who does not understand the dangers and complications of the world around him. Already, his mind is reeling, as Jimmy can only see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. Despite the fact that he has killed, he connects to his army men toys – the ultimate heroes, repeating the mantra to himself, “I am a good guy. I am an army man.” Hiding from the police, whom he previously was told to go to for help, he no longer knows who the “good guys” are. His trust in others that he meets along the way is misplaced, and the reader can only follow along in horror at his misadventures.
In Michalski’s second novella, May-September, Sandra, a 67-year-old woman who frequently describes herself as elderly, no longer feels like she holds a place in the world. Her daughter has asked her to compose her memoirs to publish on a blog, to serve as a legacy for her grandchildren. For this task, Sandra commissions Alice, a struggling young writer, to help her.
When they first meet, Sandra is cynical of the task, suggesting that she is only complying with her daughter’s wishes to prove that she hasn’t gone senile. The threat is a constant undercurrent in her life: her daughter will take her away from her home to place her in an assisted living facility in Florida. Alice is put-off by this attitude, explaining to Sandra that all stories and lives are important.
Together, the two women work on Sandra’s life stories, many focusing on her extramarital trysts and relationships with close friends. Though she feels uninteresting, Sandra tells the whole of relationships – the beginning and end of love, the deaths, the debilitating illnesses that crush the people she once knew.
So much of Sandra’s life dwells on the past. She describes her love of music, connecting different composers to people she had known. When they are gone, so too is her connection to that composer. When she can no longer play the piano because it is too late in the evening, she states that she is left alone with her memories. And since she is at an age “where anything could happen,” she is biding her time in her memories until she too is gone. Though she is losing the life around her, these visits from Alice connect her to the woman that she once was. Alice fills a void in Sandra’s life: the connection, the validation of her stories, the realization that she is still alive.
While Jimmy is unaware that he is an outsider, for Sandra, her distance from the world is acutely painful. She laments that “No one ever writes about older people,” and she feels that the world has changed around her, all while she was standing in place. Outside, the neighborhood has changed. The florist is now a cellphone store, but Sandra still serves petit fours to guests, able to describe the cake and frosting for occasions that occurred decades earlier.
As her relationship with Alice intensifies, there is a disconnect between the woman she is and the woman she was, as Alice daydreams over old photographs. Which version of a person is the true self? What remains static despite the passage of time? For Sandra, it seems to be a “slightly pained” smile that has remained through the years. She describes that she no longer feels like the person that she used to be. People do not see her, instead, “they saw some old woman thrown on top of her and they mistook her for something small, frail, needing help. A stray.”
Together, these works illustrate how so often, we fail to go any deeper than the surface of those around us. Both in Jimmy and Sandra’s interactions with the world around them, there is a breakdown of communication, and a failing of those who are close.

Jennifer Ray Morell is a freelance writer and photographer in New York City. She writes about music at The Ruckus (http://www.whatstheruckus.com/) and her adventures at That Long Yellow Line (http://www.thatlongyellowline.com/). Check Twitter for her thoughts on TV shows, puppies, and cupcakes: https://twitter.com/heyjenray.

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