Leesa Cross-Smith’s new book of short fiction, So We Can Glow, feels like a radical act of joy. On the whole, the collection is a sexy, impressionistic feast of feminine energy and agency. The women and girls in these stories relish their sexual feelings. They are either aware of their power or as yet unaware of the patriarchy’s fierce determination to turn that power against them. Consequences are a minimal part of the picture; at least, they are not given the space often seen in narratives that depict the desires of girls and women.
When young female desire is addressed in literature, it often comes with a sheen of warning — a nod, direct or subtle, to the likelihood of negative consequences. The received message is one of “yes, but”: the notion that when girls feel desire, and act on that desire, there is danger around every corner. Desire must be managed, watched closely. Contained. Suppressed.
Take Susan Minot’s classic short story “Lust,” in which sex leads to numbness and a dislocated sense of self. More recently, Lisa Taddeo’s bestseller Three Women gives readers three examples in which the consummation of sexual desire is, ultimately, not empowering or satisfying; rather it leads to brokenness, conflict, isolation, and shame.
In contrast, Cross-Smith’s characters take unabashed delight in the male objects of their desire. In “Fast As You,” the narrator, a nanny for a country music star named Tucker, muses that “Tucker was one of those guys who smoked even though he worked out every day too and kept an eye on what he was eating.” She dresses up for him and flirts. “I thought about him thinking about me, thinking about me differently than just Emmylou’s nanny. Thinking about my body and my legs and what was under my little skirt. And I was thinking about his arms in his shirt, how I cut off the sleeves for him those nights he was on stage sweating and singing. His perfect, cute-fat ass.”
In another piece, the narrator quiets her husband “by writing surreptitious, canary, chamomile in his mouth with my tongue. He pushed me back and I spread across the bed slowly. Like a flag unfurling on the Fourth of July. Like every damned army in the world was watching, standing to salute.” And in “Chateau Marmont, Champagne, Chanel,” a woman appraises her lover; she is, happily, both the hungry observer and the observed: “Now he is in his white undershirt and underwear and I am still in my white dress, boldly brave enough to eat and drink everything without fear of ruining it because I know he loves that about me. My defiance — heady and arousing. To me. To him.”
Many of these stories are brief as a summer fling, evoking a heated moment or a few pulsing frames of sensory delight. The book is steeped in feminine imagery: fruit-flavored lip gloss and perfume, Herbal Essences shampoo and “flowery deodorant,” champagne and glitter. Sometimes the trappings are the sparkly essence of a story. One flash piece, “Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting,” is a sprawling, heady four-page list of “possible ingredients,” including songs like “Thirteen” by Big Star, gemstones, pop culture icons, and “looping cursive, folded paper.” To read it is to conjure any number of visions of girlhood.
In another story, “Pink Bubblegum and Flowers,” the first line goes like this: “Sweet-sticky pink bubblegum in my mouth, blowing bubbles. Bored, peeking on the guys Dad paid to come over to rebuild the deck.” But the young narrator’s curiosities leave her probing deeper. Later on, she reflects on a moment of intimacy with her lover. “I felt dirty for … using some tragic thing that was hurting him in an attempt to get to know him better, but he trusted me enough to tell me, to come over, to tell me everything.” The story then dips into the sensual again: “The Tom Petty, the hammering, the heaven-smelling bathroom and the intimacy of Rafa sharing his secrets with me — all of that sounded and smelled and felt like something important enough to let in. To remember. To file away for later, when I needed it.”
Even when danger is lurking, we find a celebration of sensuality. In another deeply atmospheric piece, “Re: Little Doves,” pleasure reaches a fever pitch for a group of girls in thrall to an apparent cult leader. “We smoke hand-rolled cigarettes in a circle of succulents and rub sticky sagebrush and apricot mallow under our arms.”
So We Can Glow does not feel like a book that attempts to prosecute an idea or an agenda; it is having far too much fun for that. But with its many variations on sensory-rich reveling and sensual pursuit, it nevertheless makes a powerful statement.
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of the novel This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record and numerous journal and magazine articles.
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