note: I actually wrote this for something outside of the blog, but it fits in well enough that I decided to reprint it. This story will be of special interest to other SLC grads–catch all the Mt. Vernon / Bronxville stuff!
I’ve had the phrase “money earnin’ Mount Vernon” stuck in my head, like a line from a song, since I read it in the story “Virgins” by Danielle Evans. It is the most obvious example of Ms. Evans’ nearly hum-able language, but it is not the only one. She employs an urban musicality in the telling of her story, even invoking hip-hop to set her scene: three teenage characters lounging poolside, listening to “Me Against the World” the day after Tupac got shot.
The teenagers spit such sharp, sexually-charged dialogue at each other it is hard not to respond aloud. Jasmine—of the recently lost virginity and desperate desire to escape Westchester—catches a whiff of Michael’s banana-scented sunscreen and explodes:
“Sunscreen,” Jasmine said, “is for white people…You smell like food. I don’t know why you wanna smell like food. Maybe that works in Bronxville, but ain’t nobody here gonna lick you cause you smell like bananas.”
“I don’t want you to lick me,” Michael said. “I don’t know where your mouth has been. I know you don’t never shut it.”
Erica, the narrator, has an equally cutting, colloquial voice. Her observations are straightforward, but she spins out urgent sentences full of clauses, six lines long and teenage-breathless. Her world is one where young girls are alternately protected and preyed on, and she describes it in a way the reader can feel from the inside out. Along with the elements of hip-hop in this story, Erica’s recognizable yet fresh voice served to highlight, for me, how rarely we are able to hear from urban black teenagers in short story anthologies like the one in which “Virgins” appeared: The Best American Short Stories 2008.
I felt, throughout the story, that Erica was making the decisions I would make. The reader is set up to agree with her because there is so much danger for women in Mount Vernon and Erica wants to stay safe, the same, childlike. She keeps Michael around, even though he has a big-breasted white girlfriend, because other men bother her less that way. She squeezes into Jasmine’s jeans, stretching them out of shape, because they’ve always shared clothes.
So the rising action of the story came with a twinge of disappointment for me because I was sure what Erica wanted and what I wanted for her were about to diverge. Jasmine drags her to a club in the city and convinces her to go to a Bronx apartment with four older men. I wanted to scream: Get out of the elevator before you get there, Erica! Run! And, how often does this happen in a story? I got what I wanted. The elevator stops and Erica runs out onto the street. She calls Michael to come pick her up and he and his older brother do. They bring her back to their house and she curls up on the couch. Crisis averted.
It is because Erica seems to make all the right moves—all the moves the reader wants her to—that Ms. Evans is able to imbue her story with such power. Erica does all this and still, the reader realizes at the same time she does, “there is no such thing as safe, only safer.” When Michael’s brother comes to bring her to his bed, no one is surprised, only resigned. After, when Erica crawls into Michael’s bed looking for comfort, no one is surprised that Michael is looking for something else. When he finds her bra already unhooked and turns away from her, no one is surprised.
But even if there are no surprises at the end of the story, there is newness: the joy of Ms. Evans’ language, the fullness of her nuanced, vulnerable characters and the pain of being there for the moment when this particular young woman learns that losing her childhood is inevitable—maybe it could have happened “later, but not better.”