The pain when you slice your index finger instead of the scallion. That’s easy to describe and imagine. How the knife, if you’ve sharpened it enough so halfway through the job it skips on the flesh of the scallon bulb and opens up a cut in your fingertip the length of a staple, affronting your sensibilities; that’s my finger, that’s my skin’s integrity, what business do you have violating it? The sting of the scallion’s juice that gets dragged into the cut. Swabbing and bandaging and Neosporin-ing it, suffering a few days of specific lingering pain, and an eventual fulgurite of scabby callus.
The pain when you’re hungry and cashpoor and in constant motion and your guts thrum like a big dirty rubber band. Stomach mewling out for a bag of Combos or even just a handful of Haribo bears.
The pain when you stand and walk as a condition of employment; retail managers preaching the gospel of movement and uprightness to the point of discouraging leaning, god forbid sitting. The way your left big toe just turns to static after a shift, like a patient lapsing into a coma, swaddling the brain to keep it from hurting itself.
Case studies in pain populate the stories in Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl To Love. But what’s most striking is how they dissect pain not as a phenomenon but as ambience. As these characters do boring shit with various degrees of motivation, either self-destructive or hopeful, the parts that hit you like a bookcase to the chest didn’t telegraph themselves. Like a noise you don’t hear until it stops. Writing gender and discomfort minus any distortion or excessive ornamentation, Plett does and should tweak your proprioception; you’re sure it hurts, but you’re unsure where.
Plett’s earlier column in McSweeney’s laid out a row of moments, some messy and some fully-formed, from her transition, and ASGTL carries echoes of that column’s broken beauty, characters taking shape in the space between small, often messy, moments of life-as-scrapping-for-inner-peace, domesticity and labor fighting for equal shrift, human connection as a scrape-and-whack rather than a dance.
“Not Bleak”’s Tropic-of-Cancer by way of the Plains States opener, in which the the narrator and her boyfriend set out to find some stolen hormones, blooms immediately into a tale of wrongheaded love and wary community, its climax prowling between scenes of raw-lunged conversation and a gorgeous, aching trip into Canada. The author hails from there and our neighbor to the North makes regular appearances in nearly all these stories, as a home or a destination or a memory. But for all the geographic hopping (and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them linking characters) from story to story, it’s the one that takes place entirely within a small apartment in an unnamed city that compels the most pathos and, appropriately, shows up almost midway into the book. In Portland, Oregon, a young escort tries to keep her head above water during a particularly lonely winter, but the action is seen almost entirely through her sentient cat whose increasing anxiety seeps into the prose in short bursts; “His insides bunched.” “He wanted to be a good friend. He wanted to try”.
The bonds in ASGTL are fierce, and destructive in their pairing and dissolution; no punches get pulled re: the dependence of family, the awkwardness and combat of sex, and the shaky trust of friendship. But equally fierce is the honesty, and humor in bare absurdity. The evolving courtship of the two trans lesbians in “Lizzy and Annie” takes a breather so both can commiserate about an insufferable mutual acquaintance and trade verbal jabs; “Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success” is bracingly funny play-by-play; and even in the subtler recurring moments, in the perpetually exhausting gap between well-meaning cis folks’ observations and how the remarks actually land, and in the small pure moments of happiness appearing without warning and disappearing much the same way. The constant heartbeat of Can it please, can it please, can it please, for the love of fucking god, work, can this work, can this work, can this work just once, can this work.
Pain composed of Plett’s ingredients (youth, bookstores, weed, the trans experience, restless sexuality, sex, endless soul-abrading work) is what draws you in. The full and complete recognition of being alone, sitting or lying down in a quiet room, maybe a bathroom stall, clocking something being wrong, unsure how to solve it and why, and the ground dropping from your feet as you make your next decision; this is where A Safe Girl To Love finds you.
A Safe Girl To Love is available for purchase here and, if you’re lucky, at your local bookstore. Be nice to the people at the information desk. Their feet hurt.