A Pesky Case of Grief
This short story responds to Halberstam’s (2005) work on queer time that time is experienced in particular ways by queer people. I observe young adult novels featuring queer characters and/or themes mainly present these stories in heteronormative ways because they use traditional narrative techniques based in heteronormative understandings of time, which is problematic for telling queer stories. Seeking more appropriate ways to write queer time, I experiment with time-related literary devices in my short story to assist in presenting queer lives in young adult literature.
young adult literature (YA) ; creative writing research ; queer writing ; queer time ; short story
I’m only going to school because Mum would be upset if I didn’t. I never considered leaving school while she was around, but I guess I didn’t consider a lot of possibilities then.
I didn’t think I’d be the one to end things with Lauren. I didn’t think I’d choose to live with Dad. I didn’t think I’d look forward to dreaming just to talk to Mum again.
School was another one of those things I didn’t question. You go to school, you get a job, you get married, yada yada yada, right? Mum dying while I was 17 is not a part of the usual life structure. I don’t want to be the Year 12 girl with a Dead Mum. Nor do I want to be the Year 12 who dropped out because of her Dead Mum. And Mum would call me an idiot because she always told me to not let others’ decisions determine your life. But Mum left school at my age, so what did she know?
I faked another note to go to sick bay. Dad’s signature isn’t hard. Although I doubt the school would really question me. Hey Miss, I’m having a pesky case of grief again, can I lie down for 5 to 20 hours until I don’t feel so awful again? Cheers.
“Sick bay” at my school is actually just a large handicapped bathroom with a small fold out bed. It’s so clinical I’m almost impressed. Public school bathrooms, especially the girls’ ones, are rank. Like hold-it-in-until-you-get-home-from-school rank.
There’s a loud clock in the bathroom that ticks and ticks and ticks. I’d pull the batteries out but I know it’d keep going. It would still be there as a reminder of wasted time.
I think the funeral service was lovely. I’m not really sure. I kneeled my head into Lauren’s shoulder most of it. The room was cold. All you could hear was faint sobs and the funeral director speaking in a soft, calm voice like she was reading grown adults a lullaby. It’s discomforting to hear a stranger tell Mum’s story, especially things she hadn’t told me herself yet. I bailed on organising.
I place a flower on Mum’s coffin to say goodbye. I think ‘goodbye I love you’ very hard. I hope using less words makes the energy stronger so maybe it’ll reach her somewhere.
I wonder where Mum’s coffin will go, then I remember at Grandma’s funeral we laid her in the ground. Aunt Em assured me she arranged for us to not be there for that part. Instead, we get morning tea.
I’m stuffing my face with Oreos when l see my dad across the room. I’ve seen my dad more times since Mum’s crash then I can remember throughout my life. Apparently, there were some childhood years he was consistent for but I don’t remember them. Now, here he is, to say goodbye to the woman he never said goodbye to.
‘Hey, Hannah,’ Dad says.
‘Hey, Dad,’ I mumble. It’s clear where I get my conversation skills from.
I realise I’m gripping Lauren’s hand fiercely. She squeezes back harder.
‘Dad, meet Lauren. Lauren, Daniel.’ I gesture my hands towards each of them.
‘Hi, Lauren. Are you and Hannah friends from school?’ Dad asks.
‘She’s my girlfriend,’ I interrupt, before Lauren has a chance to respond. It’s not the way I imagined coming out to my dad.
‘Nice to meet you, Lauren.’
They shake hands.
‘I’m gonna go say hi to some of the others but I’ll see you again soon, Hannah,’ he says, avoiding eye contact.
‘Is everything okay with Lauren?’ Dad asks at our routine breakfast. He catches me off guard. While we had broached into favourite sports and movies, relationships were new territory.
‘No and yes,’ I reply.
‘What do you mean?’
I tell him we broke up but it’s what’s best, for right now at least. He seems satisfied with that. Mum would have had 70 more questions, but I guess I’d be more hurt by it if Mum were here. I know there are a different kinds of sadness now.
‘Why did you and Mum break up?’ I ask.
I think I’m more surprised to say these words than he is to hear them.
‘Don’t you already know?’ He replies.
‘I thought I did but not really. Aunt Em clearly doesn’t like you, and Mum didn’t talk about you much but I found your jumpers in her things.’
He looks very shocked.
‘What you thought she’d burn everything you touched? I’d be in trouble then,’ I tease.
‘Janet wouldn’t let anything hurt her baby girl,’ Dad replies in a very serious tone.
‘I’m only kidding, why, did you try to—?’ My voice getting louder.
‘No! No, Hannah! Never. At least not yet. Not like that but, see, I wasn’t around a lot. Your mum and I were very young and we just weren’t ready to be a family together.’
‘You guys were like 27.’
‘I’ll let you in on a secret, Hannah: there’s no magic age you sort your shit out.’
‘What about now? Why come back in my life now if you couldn’t be around when it counted?’ I say, my voice rising, ‘We didn’t even call you, we didn’t even have your number after it happened.’
‘I’m sorry, Hannah. I thought now would help. I thought your mum would want this.’
‘You don’t know what she wanted. You weren’t there, you said it yourself.’
‘You’re right, Hannah, I’m sorry,’ he says, sniveling.
I can’t yell at him while he cries. I walk to my room. My stomach grumbles when I close the door behind me. My toast is probably cold.
‘Is it gonna hurt?’ I ask.
‘Only for a second and then it’s all over,’ Mum says.
‘Do they really use a gun?’ I ask. The sound of my legs shaking against the plastic chair is so loud in the small room.
‘It’s better than a needle, trust me.’
‘If you don’t want it we don’t have to get it.’
‘No, no, I’m the only girl in year 5 without them! And I want to wear your chunky earrings.’
‘Okay, don’t worry, it’ll be over so quick you won’t even notice a sting.’
‘It’s gonna be fine. I love you.’
It’s 3pm on Sunday afternoon. I have to end it now. I don’t miss her. I don’t even want to see her. Maybe I love(d) her but it’s not the same. It’s not butterflies in the stomach. It’s not jittery hands and big smiles when I see her name on my phone screen.
My phone flashes and Lauren’s face fills the screen. A picture of the two of us at her place in January sometime. That feels like a lifetime ago. Back when I could call Mum up at 9:30pm and ask her to pick me up. She’d lecture me not to be out so late on a school night.
Honestly, I don’t think she cared how late it was for my schooling, I was a good student with good grades. Mum cared she had to leave the house in PJs when she wanted to drink tea and relax before getting up early for work the next day. My friends at school would gush that I could go to my girlfriend’s place on school nights. They weren’t allowed at their boyfriends so late. I think they assumed it was because we were “gay”. Mum says she doesn’t ever want me to feel like she doesn’t trust me, like her mother didn’t trust her. And Lauren’s mum… well, I think she was just trying to be very accepting since things didn’t go so well at first for them post Lauren’s coming out. Or maybe she pretends I’m just a friend studying. Bedroom door open, of course.
Lauren buzzes again. Our faces smiling at me, taunting me with what used to be. Second call in 10 minutes. Probably can’t pretend be asleep again. I open our text messages and see each of the last 5 include more than 1 exclamation point.
HANNAH: Want to come over?
LAUREN: FINALLY!! Be there in 30.
She texts me when she arrives. Who uses doorbells anymore?
‘Did you walk?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. Mum asked me to bring Freckles but I told her I wasn’t sure how long I’d be here,’ She replies.
Freckles is Lauren’s dog. Wish she did bring him so we’d both have something to distract our fidgety hands. My hands reach to play with the necklace she gave me but I’m not wearing it. I catch her eye as I pull my hand away from my bare neck.
‘Hey, want some water or snacks or something?’ I offer.
‘Nah, I’m good,’ she mutters. ‘Can we go to your room?’
Before I’ve closed the door shut she blurts out, ‘What’s going on?’
‘What do you mean?’ I reply.
I’m not sure why I’m playing this charade. I know why. I ate lunch and did drills with the netball girls to avoid her Friday. Thursday I volunteered to help Mrs Volcario set up for her Italian afternoon feast. I took longer to pack up my things. I grabbed my backpack fast at the end of the day. I gave those excellent conversation-ender replies. You know the ones: thanks, yeah, great, hahahaha.
‘The ice shoulder you’re giving me, Hannah? I’m just trying to support you. I’m finding out everything secondhand from Ashley. Do you know how that feels? I’m supposed to be your girlfriend.’
‘Chill, I’ve just been dealing with a lot. Sorting out Mum’s things and moving here.’
‘I know and I get that but—’
‘No, you don’t get that.’
‘I’m sorry, I just meant—’
‘People who get that don’t usually follow that with a but or I meant. There’s no set time on this grief thing.’
‘You know my aunt passed away last year?’
‘You barely saw your aunt? This was my mum, Lauren. My mum.’
Yep, it’s starting. The swelling water behind the eyes. I can’t just be angry, have to be angry-sad.
‘Hey, hey, hey, I’m sorry. It’s not a competition or a race or anything. I’m sorry.’ She rubs my back with her left hand and tries to pull me into a tight hug with her body.
I don’t give into the full embrace. I don’t want to cry any more than I am but I think Lauren senses something else and pulls away.
‘I want to be there for you, want to support you. You’ve got to let me be there. You can’t avoid my texts all the time,’ she says.
‘Sometimes I need to be alone though.’
‘Tell me then!’
‘It’s not that easy, Lauren. I don’t care anymore.’
‘Wait, what? Hold on. Are you…?’
‘No, no, no. I don’t care about regular life. About how much the history essay is kicking your butt or how Mr Castellano wouldn’t let you skip gym when you forgot your shoes. I don’t care.’
‘You don’t care about me?’ She pulls away. She looks so hurt. I want to hug and tell her that could never be the case. But I don’t have the strength. Maybe it’d be easier if I knew she hated me or vice versa.
‘I don’t care about small stuff. I’m just trying to get through this last year of school. Then I can go travelling, or get a job or move to the city with Aunt Em.’
‘You’re leaving me?’
‘No, Lauren. I thought it’d be easier if I stayed closer to home, my real home, but I don’t know what that is without Mum. I might go to Scotland, where she came from.’
‘I could go with you!’ I think my face shows what I think of that suggestion. I’m turning the knife in her chest now.
‘I don’t think I can handle being in a relationship right now.’
‘Yeah. I do get that. This stinksss.’ I smile at her long sss. She wipes away a few tears.
‘Yeah, it really really does. I’m so sorry.’ And we bawl our eyes out together.
The sound of knocking on the door wakes me up. I must have dozed off looking at the clock. I sit up and yell to the knocker to come in. Miss Kraft walks in with a small smile and worried brow. She holds a big yellow hat, so I assume she came from lunch duty.
‘Hey, Hannah, how you feeling?’ Miss Kraft asks.
My mouth and throat are dry, so I cough a few times to ready my voice. It feels like I’m putting on a sick show for her.
‘Yeah, I’m alright,’ I reply.
‘Could I speak to you for a moment? Or I can let you get some more rest if you want.’
I like Miss Kraft. Her English classes don’t put me to sleep and she always asks how I am like she means it, even before this happened. Still, her voice makes me uneasy.
‘Yeah…’ I say.
‘We might need to schedule a chat where you can come in with your dad, or another adult you trust, to talk about your school work.’
‘Did I fail something?’ I ask. I know I’ve been taking advantage of the sick bay but I have still been submitting work to my usual standard (3 days late but 1 week before most of the class).
‘No, no, nothing like that. Just about your sick days and maybe taking a bit longer to finish year 12. You can submit your final work or sit exams with next year’s class. Or maybe take time off and do TAFE at the start of next year when you’re feeling… better.’
What a choice word, Miss Kraft. I hope that is at the start of next year too.
‘Okay, Miss,’ I reply.
‘Think about it. Talk to your dad. Or I could call him for you. We can talk more about other options together. We don’t want you to be here because you feel like you have to be.’
I try not to snigger aloud at that. Isn’t every kid here because they have to?
‘I’ll think about it. I’ll tell—talk—to um, Dad myself.’
Miss Kraft shuts the door behind her on her way out.
But I guess I’m a flight risk. I’m running on auto pilot and any moment all systems might go-
There are numerous academic papers and books analysing contemporary queer young adult (YA) novels and the messages embedded in these texts (Abate & Kidd 2011, Blackburn, Clark & Nemeth 2015, Cart & Jenkins 2006, Jones 2013, Wickens 2011). However, there is little textual information on writing advice in the genre. The intersection of queer writing and YA literature remains a largely unexplored area of research.
My short story uses literary elements of time including fragmentation and nonlinearity to heighten the queer experience of the central young adult character. My focus on time stems from Halberstam’s (2005, 1) argument in In a Queer Time and Place—that queer time develops ‘in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction’. Queer time disturbs the notion of ‘coming-of-age’ or ‘growing up’ as queer people often defy heteronormative models. Queer theorists Freeman (2010), Stockton (2009) and Edelman (2004) argue different ways of growing that resist, or delay, a heteronormative future.
My short story engages queer writing as a practice to explore how queer YA literature can resist heteronormativity (Baker 2013). I engage creative writing techniques fragmentation and nonlinearity in the short story to emphasise queer time. The nonlinear structure of the short story mirrors the nonlinearity often experienced by queer lives, even at a young age.
I use fragmentation on sentence, dialogue and narrative levels, allowing for more diverse experiences of queerness. For example, fragmenting dialogue during the intense break up conversation between the protagonist and her girlfriend produces disharmony due to the recognition of something unresolved. It also signals to the unsaid and/or unsayable, which is significant if one considers how greatly queer people historically have been, and continue to be silenced when it comes to the expression of queer experiences, identities, perspectives and/or desires.
This short story is significant because it demonstrates the importance of queer time in representing the queer experiences of young people. I demonstrate how time-related literary devices fragmentation and nonlinearity can be useful for others in the field of creative writing hoping to tell queer time in YA literature. This research aims to expand contemporary knowledge about the portrayal of queer characters in YA fiction and expand existing knowledge between queer writing and YA literature.
Abate, Michelle and Kenneth Kidd. 2011. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Baker, Dallas. 2013. ‘Creative Writing Praxis as Queer Becoming’. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, 10(3).
Blackburn, Mollie, Caroline Clark, and Emily Nemeth. 2015. ‘Examining Queer Elements and Ideologies in LGBT Themed Literature: What Queer Literature Can Offer Young Adult Readers‘. Journal of Literacy Research, 47(1).
Cart, Michael and Christine Jenkins. 2006. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.
Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, Caroline. 2013. ‘From Homoplot to Progressive Novel: Lesbian Experience and Identity in Contemporary Young Adult Novels’. The Lion and the Unicorn, 37(1).
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. 2009. The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke University Press.
Wickens, Corrine. 2011. ‘Codes, Silences, and Homophobia: Challenging Normative Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary LGBTQ Young Adult Literature‘. Children’s Literature in Education, 42(2).
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