This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.
Split Lip Press, 2019
$16.00, 180 Pages
Review by Yousef Allouzi
Jennifer Wortman’s new collection of short stories This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. (Split Lip Press, 2019) illustrates the complexities of love through sharp dialogue and character development. She pushes beyond the traditional conceptions of fairy-tale love and excavates an experiential version – one much more practical and realistic, in which her characters struggle to reconcile their beliefs of what love should be with how they experience it. I was struck with how she uncovers a dimension of how mental health is affected by, and affects, love for one’s self, love for one’s family, and one’s love for others. It allowed me to reflect on my own depression, which I’ve struggled with since being diagnosed with PTSD.
When my brother Matthew committed suicide in March of 2015, I was confronted with a grim reality. Not all my memories of him were good. While in the throes of a methamphetamine addiction, I once drove him to his probation officer knowing he would be sent back to jail. We cried together in the car, and I on the lonely drive back home. I would get angry in these moments, reminding him he had a family to support.
Wortman brilliantly captures such complicated family history in “What Family Does,” a story in which the teenage protagonist sneaks out of the house at night to visit a character named Dirt for pizza and beer, beautifully threading together the protagonist’s expectation of what she believes is developing between her and Dirt, in juxtaposition to Dirt wiping her hand with a dirty napkin after a particularly intimate scene behind the restaurant. The protagonist attributes the experience to her own insecurities and doubts instead of assigning them to Dirt. But Wortman adds an additional layer, as the relationship between the protagonist’s mother and father is reflected in her perceived relationship with Dirt, leaving the reader with the stark reality that we often, without realizing it, model and are reinforced by our parents’ behavior. We rarely experience love in a vacuum, despite what we do when our family isn’t looking.
A few days before his death, Matt called to tell me that after some years of sobriety, his meth addiction had resurfaced. He was paranoid and scared. I invited him and his wife over for dinner and they agreed to stay the night. When they arrived, I could tell something was very wrong. He kept asking me if I was okay, as if I was being held in my apartment against my will. I reassured him as best I could and looked at his wife puzzled. She shrugged her shoulders. I told him I’d help him as soon as finals were over. I heard the timer for the lasagna, so I went into the kitchen and took it out of the oven to cool. But, when I went back into the living room, my brother and his wife were gone. I called multiple times, but he didn’t answer. Then I received a text saying that he left because he felt sick. It was the last time I would ever see my brother.
Matt and I fought and made up so many times that we by our thirties we could do it all within a couple of hours. One of us would do or say something, the other would escalate it, we’d argue and bicker, then apologize and tell each other: I love you. In the story “Love You, Bye,” Wortman uses this exact dynamic of escalation, grabbing your attention in a story involving two friends, one who is psychic and one who is engaged, as they eventually square off over a guy the engaged friend meets at a cell phone shop. Wortman employs an adept sense of pacing to capture this escalation, creating an exchange between the two friends that is emotional and tense.
Relationships require work. I can’t help but wonder if I had focused less on finals and more on helping my brother, would he still be here today? I am left with the realization that love is incredibly complex. It requires balancing the boundaries between ourselves and others. I often am confronted with questions I have no answer for, most compelling of which is, did I love my brother properly?
In “Slumber Party,” Wortman deals with a similar question from a mother to her child. The story revolves around the mother’s young daughter not being invited to a slumber party by a popular girl at school. Wortman demonstrates a rich depth of character through the dialogue: “But, you know,” says the child’s father, “this Potts girl probably just did Sarah a huge favor. Twenty years from now, our Sarah’s going to own Theresa Potts, and everyone like her.” But the mother takes it a step further, attempting to humiliate the popular girl when given the chance to atone for the perceived mistreatment of her daughter, and in doing so, trying to rectify the mistreatment she felt growing up.
It’s no secret that love is a complicated word in English. It covers too much ground, and yet, somehow, not enough. There are different gradations of love, like a prism of shaded colors, the deepest of which isn’t revealed until you combine them all together. The characters in Wortman’s book can only define love through facing their more unfavorable demons, much like myself remembering my brother. We experience a gratefulness not in opposition to the bad memories, but because of them.