During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Dionne Irving.
I first came across “Eternal Love” by Karen Bender on NPR’s Selected Shorts. In my heady first days of teaching, I spent much of my time commuting around the entire state of Rhode Island, working as an adjunct professor at five different colleges and universities. In those days my car felt like a cocoon and short stories were the way I accessed humanity when I spent so much of my day driving and teaching. It was a pleasure to get behind the wheel and become immersed in stories. “Eternal Love” was being rebroadcast, and as I headed over the bridge from Newport to Jamestown, I heard these opening lines:
After Lena and Bob were married in the Chapel of Eternal Love, Ella told them that new husbands and wives were not allowed to share a hotel bedroom. Married couples, she told her retarded daughter, learned to be married slowly, in separate rooms.
It is the only time in the narrative that Lena’s mental disability is mentioned outright, but the story—and the chaperoned honeymoon and detailing of Lena and Bob’s courtship that follows—is not sad because the couple is mentally challenged; nor is it sad because the world sees them as different during their Las Vegas wedding. “Eternal Love” is haunted with sadness because this story is the mother Ella’s, not Lena’s.
Writers—beginning or seasoned—often want to write about love. When I begged my students last semester not to write any more love stories, what I meant was this: no more stories about romantic love that read like a movie of the week or a setup for a joke. “Oh no!” they moaned. “What else is there to write about?” In many ways my students are right: the best stories are often love stories. But it is in the reimagining of that traditional theme that good writers succeed. Stories like Bender’s are about all the different and unexpected ways that love manifests itself.
At its core “Eternal Love” is about a love so deep, so personal, and so intimate that Ella can peer into her thirty-year-old daughter’s vagina after her first sexual experience without a moment’s hesitation or pause and then dab her adult daughter’s pubic hair in a gesture so intimate and raw it stuns me each time I read it. And that is the essence of love: intimacy. More completely than most, this story captures the intimate connection between mother and child, and it is that intimacy—so heartbreakingly, tragically rendered—and Ella’s letting go that makes this love story so bare and deeply personal. The severing of the intimacy between mother and daughter that must happen for Ella to try to find intimacy with her husband, Lou, and for Lena and Bob to connect is both necessary and painful, and Bender ensures that we understand that completely.
At the story’s end, after the fright of her first sexual experience, Lena returns with Bob to their hotel room. Ella, left alone with her dozing husband, peers out the window and into the Las Vegas night, wanting so badly to see her daughter that she imagines Lena seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels. By the time I first came to the end of the story, my hand over my mouth as I sat in my car in the driveway of my rented house in Providence, I was amazed by its raw power and intensity and went inside and immediately bought Best American Short Stories 1997 where the story appears. “Eternal Love” crushed me then and continues to do so every time I reread it.
All writers can learn about plot or how to create character. But knowing how to structure a story, how to have each moment build on what’s before, how to raise the pitch to a level of soul-piercing intensity? That has to do with god-given talent. A great writer structures these moments so that each is made more achingly beautiful by the rest, and Bender is one of those great writers.
Haven’t read it? You can read the full text of “Eternal Love” here!
Dionne Irving’s short story “Florida Lives” appeared in The Missouri Review in Fall 2010. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Big Muddy, New Delta Review, and Carve Magazine. She earned her doctorate in creative writing at Georgia State University. In the fall she will begin a position at St. Mary’s College, a women’s college in South Bend, Indiana.