Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Media)
In Leesa Cross-Smith’s short story collection, Every Kiss a War, 27 stories track the vicissitudes of love and loss in the states around Kentucky, where Cross-Smith calls home. The collection, a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor short story award and a semi-finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, follows the lives of widows, daughters, bourbon drinkers and married men as they travel between states and between lovers in search of something to make them stay.
The collection begins in “Skee Ball, Indiana,” with the line, “We got lost every time we crossed the Ohio.” It’s an appropriate place to start, lost between border-states traveling across a body of water—a state of existence that reminds me of Heraclitus, “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” Water is a classical metaphor for change and Every Kiss a War, is rife with change. The characters are never quite sure if they are loving the right people or in the right place in their lives. Whether they are recovering from a spouse dying, a boyfriend or a husband leaving, or chasing someone new for the thrill of the hunt, every character is searching for some kind of connection, a reason to obtain.
Every Kiss a War is about relationships, trust and betrayal. Along the bourbon-colored rivers of Kentucky and Ohio, the war for the heart is being fought by these characters. However, the war is not an external war, not about how to find the right person and make them love you. Rather, the war is internal: how do you love the one you’re with? Especially when what you need or want can change as quickly as the tides. The characters toggle back and forth between desire and doubt, between boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and lovers, trying to find a place to settle down.
Many of the stories are rich in dialogue, in the back and forth transactions of the self that take place and carry so much weight at the beginning and end of a relationship. And in these conversations, the tectonic forces of love work beneath the surface, moving us from the moment we tell someone to follow us home to when we ask them to leave. The characters’ back-and-forth is often fairly simple—authentic sounding patter that passes between friends and lovers, between sheets, over dinners, over an afternoon in the mall. And in that exchange we also see how many of our thoughts go unsaid in speech, how many half-truths lie behind the eyes. The dialogue found in her work is both a meaningful transaction and yet colored with uncertainty, “I tell her she’s more beautiful than the mountains and I mean it. I do.”
This uncertainty is riddled through “The Wild Hunt,” a story about the seduction of a coffee shop owner by a man who serially seduces women. The main character, Wes, begins by trying to seduce a woman he meets in a store, fully aware that it is a willful act that he’s completed many times before. And yet, even in the act of seduction, in the willful abandonment of responsibility, Wes thinks that things could change, “Sometimes I think I’m: going crazy, such an asshole, gonna start talking to Jesus. Sometimes I think I’m okay. Sometimes I think I’m gonna get a sign. She kissed him hard and he welcomed it.” Her kiss forecloses any further thought, shuts off the brief glimmer that is going off in his brain.
In the second story, “It can never be too dark or too bright,” Cross-Smith introduces themes that will resonate through all 27 stories. In the story, an unnamed narrator is dating two men, whom she calls Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky, “Kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church.” The other man, Tennessee, is presented as good and open-minded, a quality that the narrator distrusts. “It’s hard to trust things when they’re pretty and good.” He tries the narrator’s vegetarian dishes and thanks her for introducing him to new things. The other man, Kentucky, listens to records and smokes joints. The narrator is torn between the two men, and in it you can feel a sort of bifurcation that is an essential part of human existence, a splitting of the self that Cross-Smith mines again and again in her stories. What kind of a person are you going to be, and for how long?
In the best stories, such as “Find His Blue,” the writing finds a lyrical space to traverse and mimic the in-between state of place and love that permeates the stories. The story is a fine example of flash fiction, lyricism wedded to narrative space. In it, a synesthetic woman describes the love she feels for her husband, “The daughter was a glittering yellow. Sometimes the love was a goldish color.” The narrator describes her husband occasionally losing himself in a crowd, and how she’s use his color to find him in a crowd, “It didn’t matter where they were, she could scan the heads and find his blue…his blue was almost smoke.” This narrator, unlike many others, is not battered by doubt, but is brought safety and comfort. “He sat behind the piano and played a song. The hushing reminded her of the sea at night. Of raining and raining and raining and yellow hooded jackets.
If the stories have a drawback, it’s that occasionally the narratives can start to coalesce—to feel less like individual stories and more like a collection of love stories that all came from one hand. This is a common issue when writers collect a group of stories together, certain themes and characteristics come to the fore, and I’d submit that it’s even heightened in flash fiction when more stories are on the table, more themes or idiosyncratic tendencies a part of narratives. To her credit, Cross-Smith experiments with form, using lists such as in, “A Modest Guide to Truculence/Survival: Girls” or linking narratives in “What the Fireworks are for and Hold On, Hold On and Cheep Beer & Sparklers,” a three part story about the dissolution of a marriage. The latter half of the collection also begins to incorporate more male characters, who struggle just as badly as the females who have preceded them, to love properly.
The best stories are often aided by structural oddities—lists, use of the second person, a linked narrative. It is in these stories that Cross-Smith’s language seems to find an internal rhythm, as if the structure itself lends a certain kind of freedom. And perhaps that’s a good way to look at her portrayal of marriage in the work, a structure or commitment that also gives a kind of freedom. The stories often end with lines that are reminiscent of poetry. Lines like these resonate like the aftertaste of a good bourbon: “And what matters is the moon is chasing us all/His heart was like gristle when she bit down but she just chewed and chewed and didn’t spit it out/I am always putting my ear down to the railroad tracks, waiting for the distant, low rattle and rumble of something coming to heal me.”
What Cross-Smith excels at is showing that within the kernel of every relationship lies the possibility of its end. The first kiss or the first love carries in its passion a vestige or a hint of its passing, or its awakening with someone new. The characters are like trains passing through a series of tunnels, holding their breath until they make it back into the light. And I suppose what I’ve failed to capture is that these stories are laced throughout with hope, like ribbons of light. For instance, at the end of the second story, “It can never be too dark or too bright,” the narrator eventually does decide on a man, and it’s the one who she thinks is good. “He reaches in and pulls them [hands] out and holds them and you tell him you love him too. And it must be a full moon because the moonlight is shining underneath the pulled shade of the bedroom window and it’s so bright. It’s just so bright.”
And perhaps that’s as good a place as any to leave the stage. The gristle in these stories on which the reader bites down is in the shape of the human heart. There is no promise that love will be easy. In fact, these stories seem to suggest that life and love are both explorations, choices. They hint that we are always in the act of becoming, always between things, always moving on somewhere, if only in our minds.