Kelly Braffet on the Enduring Appeal of Youth in Writing
Editor's Note: Kelly Braffet is the author of Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, where she received her MFA. Kelly lives in upstate New York with her husband, the writer Owen King. Here, Braffet discusses the appeal of young protagonists, and why she returns to them in her writing again and again. Her latest novel, Save Yourself, is now available.
I live in a college town, and I love it. The college keeps the town vibrant, and wards off some of the Ye Olde Village Cuteness that afflicts so many of our neighbors: There are hanging baskets of flowers up and down Main Street, but there’s also a little graffiti. And those who live next door to an eight-person share two blocks from campus might be less charmed, but I love seeing the students around town. I love watching them flirt in the coffee shop. I love seeing awkward morning-after diner breakfasts, or couples holding hands in that sweet, shy way you never really recapture. Once I rounded a corner in the grocery store to find a girl in head-to-toe steampunk gear, as if she’d just parked her time traveling airship by the vegan sorbet. The young people, in short, are awesome.
And yet, I would not trade places with one of them for all the money ever printed. For everything that’s new and shiny about being young, there are three things that are terrifying and unpredictable. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to write about them, again and again: Of the six protagonists of my three published novels, only one is over thirty, two are actual teenagers, and the rest are in their twenties. Writing about young people has never been a conscious choice; these are just the stories that occur to me to tell, and the people who happen to be in them. Some writers lean toward epiphany when choosing their stories, but I lean toward moments of decision and crisis, which, to me, make youth a natural target. You’re not sure who you are and you’re not sure who you want to be. Your relationships, your living situation, and your finances are often unsettled and precarious; you might want to change your life, but you probably don’t know how, and the result is a weird state of panicked doldrums. No wonder I wouldn’t go back. You probably wouldn’t, either. Not for all the shy hand-holding and unwrinkled skin in the world.
Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of readers out there who feel the same way regarding novels about younger characters. Meh, they think, reading the jacket. Those aren’t my problems anymore. We’ve all been young. Whatever our personal version of steampunk goggles might have been, we’ve probably worn it all to the grocery store, and we’ve moved past these-goggles-are-who-I-am to wow-I-wish-I-could-see-better. We feel justified in dismissing people based on their age in a way that we would (ideally) never feel comfortable dismissing people based on their gender or cultural background; we feel we have a right to, because we’ve been there.
It’s easy to grow complacent, to say I’ve been your age, you haven’t been mine, and decide that’s the end of it. But when we do that, we’re effectively deciding that there’s no value in seeing the world through the eyes of someone who happens to be younger than we are. At its best, though, fiction is about showing us what we fail to see, even when we don’t want to see it. We may have lived our youth, but we haven’t lived everybody’s youth. Even as an official grown-up, I still find the world baffling more often than I’d like to admit. Steampunk Girl is out there, in that world -- in my grocery store! -- and maybe if I come a little closer to understanding her, the rest of the world will make a little more sense, too.
Patrick worked the day shift at Zoney's GoMart one Wednesday a month: sealed into the vacuum-packed chill behind the convenience store's dirty plate-glass windows, watching cars zoom by on the highway while he stood still. When he worked nights, the way he usually did, the world was dark and quiet and calm outside and it made him feel dark and quiet and calm inside. When he worked days, all he felt was trapped.
So by the time he made it out of the store that evening, he was just glad to be free. His eyes were hot with exhaustion and the odor of the place lingered on his clothes--stale potato chips, old candy, the thick syrupy smell of the soda fountain--but the warm September air felt good. As he rounded the corner of the building and headed toward the Dumpsters where he'd parked, back where the asphalt had almost crumbled into gravel and the weeds grew tall right up to the edge of the lot, the car keys in his hand were still cold from the air conditioner. That was all he was thinking about.
Then he saw the goth girl leaning against his car.
He'd seen her before. She'd been in the store earlier that day, when Bill came by to pick up his paycheck. Patrick had kept an eye on her because he didn't have anything else to do and because she'd been there too long, fucking with her coffee and staring into the beverage cases. Not that Patrick, personally, gave a shit what or how much she stole, but as long as she was there he'd felt at least a nominal responsibility to look concerned for the security cameras. Then Bill had called her Bride of Dracula and made an obscene suggestion, and she'd called him a degenerate and stormed out in what Patrick assumed was a huff. He and Bill had laughed about it, and he hadn't thought any more about her.
But now here she was, leaning on his car like she belonged there and staring at him with eyes as huge and merciless as camera lenses. In the dimming light, her dyed-black hair and her almost-black lipstick made her pale skin look nearly blue. She held a brown cigarette even though she looked all of sixteen, her expression a well-rehearsed mixture of indifference and faint amusement. When she saw him her lips curled in something like a smile.
"Hello," she said.
Patrick stopped. Her earrings were tiny, fully articulated human skeletons. He tried to figure out if he knew her, if underneath all that crap she was somebody from the neighborhood or somebody's kid sister that he hadn't seen since she was ten. He didn't think so. "If you're looking for weed," he told her, "you got the wrong night. That guy works Mondays."
"You mean your degenerate friend from this morning?" She laughed. It was a Hollywood laugh, as stale as the air inside the store he'd just left. "Hardly."
"Whatever." Patrick was too tired for this shit. He pointed to his car door and she moved back, but not enough. It was hard to avoid touching her as he got in. He slipped his keys into the ignition, buckled his seat belt, and rolled down the window, all the while acutely aware of the girl's big spidery eyes staring at him through the dirty glass. He turned on the engine.
She waited, watching him.
"Do I know you?" he finally asked.
"No." She leaned down into the open window. "But I know you." There was a ring shaped like a coffin on one of her fingers. Patrick wondered if the skeleton earrings fit inside it. She smelled sweet and slightly burned, like incense. To Patrick's dismay her black tank top fell in such a way that he could see her lacy purple bra, whether he wanted to or not. Jesus. He looked back up at her face.
Staring at him through thickly painted eyelashes, she said, "You're Patrick Cusimano. Your dad was the one who killed Ryan Czerpak."
"Ryan's family comes to my dad's worship group," the goth girl said, peering curiously past him into the backseat. "I used to babysit for them sometimes." Then she saw Patrick's face, and her blood-colored lips opened.
"Hey," she said, but before she could say anything else, Patrick heard himself growl, "Get your tits out of my car," and then his wheels spun in the gravel and she was gone. His heart was beating so fast that his ears ached.
The year before, on a warm day in June, Patrick's father had come home from work two hours late, crying and smelling like Southern Comfort. His hands were shaking and there was vomit down the front of his shirt and pants. Sitting on the couch, white-faced and bleary-eyed, he wouldn't look at either of his sons. Holy god, he'd said, over and over again. I did it now. Jesus Christ. I sure did it now. Patrick tried to get him to say what was wrong, but his father wouldn't or couldn't answer. Patrick's brother, Mike, brought a glass of water and a clean shirt (throwing the dirty one in the wash and starting the load without even thinking about it) but the old man wouldn't touch either, just rocked back and forth and clutched his head in his callused hands, chanting the same refrain: Holy god. Holy fucking shit.
It had been Patrick, after too much of this, who went to the garage and saw the dented bumper; Patrick who smelled the hot gasoline-and-copper tang in the air; Patrick who stared for a long time at the wetness that looked like blood before reaching out to touch it and determine that, yes, it was blood. Patrick who realized that the tiny white thing lodged in the grille wasn't gravel but a tooth, too small to have come from an adult mouth. It had been Patrick who had realized that somebody somewhere was dead.
Up until that point, there were two things that Patrick could count on to be true: the old man was a drunk, and the old man screwed up. And as far as Patrick was concerned, the first priority was fixing it. When he worked the morning shift at the warehouse you woke up before he did so you could make the coffee and get him out the door. When he passed out on the couch you took the cigarette from his limp fingers. When he ranted--about the government that wanted to take his money, about the Chinese who wanted to take his job, about the birth control pills that had given Patrick's mother cancer and killed her--you kept your cool and had a beer yourself, and you tried to sneak away all the throwable objects so that in the morning there'd be glasses to drink from and a TV that didn't have a boot thrown through the screen. You took evasive action. You headed disaster off at the pass. You made it better. You fixed it.
Staring at the bloody car, Patrick thought, wearily, I can't fix this.
Inside, Mike, his eyes wide with panic, said, No, little brother, hang tight, we can figure this out. Just wait. Even though there was nothing to figure out. All through that night into the gray light of dawn and on until the shadows disappeared in the midday sun, the three of them hunkered down in the living room, the old man sniveling and stuttering and saying things like Jesus, I wish I still had my gun, I ought to just go ahead and kill myself, and Mike--who would not even go into the garage, who point-blank refused--trying to force the reality of the situation into some less horrible shape. The longer they sat, the more it felt like debating the best way to throw themselves under a train. Patrick, it seemed, was the only one who realized that there was no best way. You just jumped. That was all. You jumped.
So, at one o'clock in the afternoon, Patrick called the police. Nineteen hours had elapsed between his father's return home and Patrick's phone call. He'd thought it through: they couldn't afford a private lawyer, and the old man couldn't get a public defender until he'd been charged. When the police arrived, the detective came back from the garage with a steely, satisfied expression on his face. We've been looking for you, he said to the old man, and all the old man did was nod.
Patrick remembered very little about what happened after that. Except that Mike said, Jesus, Pat--nobody had called Patrick Pat since he was ten years old--he's our dad.
Well, it's almost over now, Patrick said.
He had been wrong. It was just starting. None of Patrick's friends had explicitly told him they didn't want to hang out anymore; the cop who came into Zoney's every night had never said, I'm keeping my eye on you, Cusimano; like father like son. The supervisor at the warehouse where all three Cusimanos had worked had never suggested the remaining two find other jobs (and in fact, Mike still worked there). But always, from the very beginning, Patrick had read a sudden wariness in people, as if bad luck was catching and he was a carrier. The sidelong glances and pauses in conversation that stretched just a beat too long; the police cruisers that seemed to drive past their house on Division Street more often than they once had, or linger in the rearview a block longer than was reasonable; the weird sense of disengagement, of nonexistence, when cashiers and waitresses and bank clerks who saw his name on his credit card or paycheck couldn't quite seem to focus their eyes on him. Like he was nonstick, made of Teflon, and their gazes couldn't get purchase.
Nothing overt. Nothing you could point to. Just a feeling. If he'd never bought the newspaper at the SuperSpeedy, it wouldn't have come to anything more than that. He could just have bulldozed through, like Mike, waiting for people to get over it. He'd avoided coverage of the accident as much as he could. He didn't want to see the roadside shrine, with its creepy collection of plastic flowers and cellophane-shrouded teddy bears that wouldn't ever be played with, and he didn't want to see the kid's stricken mother holding a photo of her dead kid in the bedroom where he'd never sleep again. He'd bought the paper that day because his job at the warehouse had already started to feel impossible, but he hadn't taken anything from the rack but the classifieds. It hadn't occurred to him that the obituaries would be in the same section. Even if it had, it wouldn't have occurred to him that the kid's obit would still be running a month after the accident.
But he'd turned a page and there it was, oversized in the middle of all that sad muted eight-point death. Until then he hadn't actually seen the dead kid's photograph. Looking at it, at the kid's gap-toothed first grader grin, he'd felt--not bad, bad was his new normal. He'd felt worse. He wouldn't have thought that was possible.
The obit listed a memorial website, where you could make donations for the family. It took a few days for him to work up to it but eventually Patrick had suggested to Mike that they give some money. Anonymously, of course. Not out of guilt, although that was certainly part of it; more out of a sense that here was a thing, albeit a small thing, that could be done. But Mike, who had been drinking beer and watching Comedy Central in near silence ever since the accident, had only glared. For a moment, Patrick had thought his brother might hit him.
Instead, Mike had asked why the hell they would do that, since it wasn't like the old man had killed the kid on purpose. And it wasn't like they had any money to spare--only the old man had made full-time union wages, and losing his paycheck had hurt them badly--and it also wasn't like anybody was offering them free money, were they? "Fuck the kid, fuck his fucking family, and fuck you," Mike had said. "Dad's going to be in jail for fifteen years. They don't get anything else."
Determined to send the money anyway, Patrick had used one of the computer terminals in the public library so Mike wouldn't catch him, typing in the web address with his almost-maxed credit card ready to go. He'd scrolled down the page past the kid's picture, trying not to feel cynical about the sappy graphics and badly rhymed poetry (My broken heart can only cry, I pray to God and ask Him why) and looking for the donation link. He'd found the other one first.
Click here for more information about John Cusimano and his sons.
Gravity had done something weird just then. Patrick had felt like his limbs might float away from his body, but he clicked, anyway.
No flickering candles on this page. No sweet angels with electronic wings gently flapping. No poetry, no flowers, and most of all, no grinning first grader. The page he'd landed on was stark white, with red and black lettering: double underscore, bold, italic, and very, very angry. And it wasn't about the old man. It was about him and Mike.
John Cusimano's two ADULT SONS, Michael and Patrick, were alone with him for NINETEEN HOURS after their father KILLED RYAN!! The car that took our Precious Baby away SAT IN THEIR GARAGE COVERED IN RYAN'S BLOOD and they DIDN'T BOTHER TO CALL THE POLICE!! They washed their father's clothes to DESTROY THE EVIDENCE!! Call the Janesville County District Attorney's office and demand that they be charged as ACCOMPLICES AFTER THE FACT!!! DO NOT LET THESE MONSTERS GET AWAY WITH MURDER!!!
There was a photo, which Patrick had already seen when it ran in the local paper, of the brothers leaving the courthouse after the arraignment. There was also a message board. Patrick had known he shouldn't read it.
Michael and Patrick Cusimano you will burn in hell forever.
Those boys better hope they never meet me in a dark alley. Once upon a time somebody would have GOT A ROPE already.
In twenty years monsters like this will be ruling the country. This is what happens when you take prayer out of the schools.
Only one (anonymous) poster had said anything even remotely positive--I knew Mike and Patrick in high school and I thought they were nice, I am so sorry to Ryan's family but Mike and Patrick are suffering too--and the responses had not been generous.
It is obvious you do not have children and I hope you never do!
If you think their nice your probably just as evil as they are. I notice your not using your real name.