Breastfeeding, for the most part, is a selfless act. It’s about boosting the immune system, preventing allergies, giving baby the best start in life — except in “What You Are Now Enjoying,” the title story in Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s debut collection. In this story, Jan is approaching thirty, suffers debilitating headaches, and is disillusioned with both her personal and professional life. So, with a few friends, she joins a therapy group where each woman is assigned an orphaned infant to breastfeed. Jan’s anxiety, fear, and headaches soon disappear.
What You Are Now Enjoying won the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Several stories in the collection have been previously published in journals such as Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Massachusetts Review. Gerkensmeyer is the current Pen Parentis Fellow (Pen Parentis assists and promotes writers who are also parents) and a mother of two young boys. Many of her stories explore motherhood and/or childlessness, and — like breastfeeding-orphans-as-therapy — seamlessly blend the everyday with the extraordinary.
In “Hank,” teenage Maria babysits an eerily precocious five-month-old who holds in-depth conversations, but only with Maria. Among many other topics, they discuss astronomy and Hank’s parents’ loveless relationship. In “Careless Daughters,” a woman replies to an Internet ad, leaves her home to join her new husband and sister-wives, and begins to yearn for a child.
Like great writers of magical realism, for instance Kelly Link or Italo Calvino, Gerkensmeyer draws us into the off-beat world she has created and renders it almost plausible. Most of her stories rest on a realistic foundation but tilt toward the curious, the uncomfortable, the bizarre. In “My Husband’s House,” the narrator describes the first time she saw her future husband. He was one of two men standing in the river, waiting to grab a nesting catfish and wrangle it to shore in a practice called “noodling,” which actually exists. Her husband later dies noodling yet returns to usher her to his new home under the river:
I was relieved and tired when I realized that my husband had been telling the truth, that there was no way to stop what was happening. I could feel it then: all of Ohio, its towns and its churches and its roads and its rivers — this old, snaky one especially — swallowing me up.
In “Vanishing Point,” a woman has a secret affair at a therapeutic camp for people who have lost, or think they’ve lost, a twin in utero. “This is the reason,” she says, “for the empty hole sloshing around inside my soul.” So many theories try to explain why we don’t feel whole, how part of us feels missing. This camp might very well exist; if not, maybe it should.
Even in stories not squarely centered on motherhood, Gerkensmeyer explores parental preoccupations such as healthy food and nighttime monsters. In “Monster Drinks Chocolate Milk,” a woman sits on the kitchen counter with the monster who has terrorized her since toddlerhood. They share chocolate milk, the monster eats leftovers from Tupperware containers, they discuss depression (his) and embarrassment (hers). In “Produce,” we meet an employee of a high-end organic supermarket whose job it is to weep over the produce, her sorrow ensuring the fruit and vegetables stay oh-so-delicious:
We all push our silent carts and pretend not to notice. We brush by her shuddering shoulders in order to get to the choicest kumquat, the most perfect star fruit. Those are the best days. I swear you can see the stuff growing more beautiful right before your eyes.
The women in What You Are Now Enjoying are intriguing, flawed, and in search of something: love, connection, meaning, children, or perfect produce. Gerkensmeyer takes us to unrecognizable places, yet, once there, we discover a familiar longing and loneliness. To read these stories is to be lost in Gerkensmeyer’s brilliant imagery and lush language. When you emerge, the world seems different: more beautiful, more tragic, more alive.