Escape Artists

by Miriam McNamara

Spring 2015 Guest Editor Miriam McNamara; nonfiction-choice writer David Chatt; poetry-choice writer Susan White

Spring 2015 Guest Editor Miriam McNamara; nonfiction-choice writer David Chatt; poetry-choice writer Susan White

Editor’s Choice: “Greyhound” and “Loaded Novella”
For each issue of The Great Smokies Review, a guest editor from the Great Smokies writing community selects a favorite submission and explains why.

The narrator of the nonfiction essay, “Greyhound,” is me when I was sixteen. I was on that same bus during my late adolescence, headed anywhere but home. I went to work at that summer camp—okay, mine was in southwestern Virginia and not Wisconsin, but still. David says that “sometimes, it doesn’t feel like me who shows up in my life. It feels like a play, and I’m just in the cast. I don’t want this part, but they need this character, so I pretend, and now I’m a person I don’t like.” Those sentences distill my high school angst. I, too, longed for the chance to escape the role I played at my high school and have a chance to remake myself.

The narrator gives voice to my adolescent thoughts; he is very Holden Caulfield with all of his sarcastic observations. Here’s how he explains the guys in his high school: “When girls walk by, they stand in the halls and yell numbers, one to ten. I feel sorry for the girls when they yell two or three, and hoot like a bunch of apes, but to tell the truth, nines and tens don’t enjoy it either.”

Although this is memoir and based on true events that took place a long time ago, the author’s choice to use present tense puts me right into the story’s action. I feel the uncomfortable climate of that high school hallway. I sweat along with David as he waits on the letter that will tell him whether he has the summer camp job.

When a man on the bus the narrator dubs “weirdo guy” starts telling the narrator all about his girlfriend, the narrator responds by fabricating stories about a girl from school who gave him her picture. “Before you know it, I am reaching for my wallet and taking out that picture and telling weirdo guy all about my girlfriend Sue…I don’t know why I did that.” When I read this, I saw myself in identical conversations in my past; I’ve made up the exact same stories, to strangers whose opinion shouldn’t have mattered to me.

The author’s use of summary during this conversation, as opposed to scene, creates a sense of distance from the conversation, which gives me the sense that David is starting to distance himself from it as well. He is performing that assigned role again, but I can see him starting to separate from it. He is analyzing his actions, and starting to ask questions.

I was a queer kid, and I, too made an escape to summer camp that made me a happier person. I had the chance to choose my role, instead of playing the one I’d been in my whole life out of habit. I escaped for a summer and got some perspective, so that I could choose who I wanted to be in the story of my life. I imagine that the narrator’s experience changed him for the better, too. When I read “Greyhound,” I’m that kid again, the whole world in front of me, the possibilities almost unendurably exciting.

Escape means different things to different people. I never considered suicide as an escape route for myself—but my pain was the normal teenage angst: I felt it deep, but it was always fleeting. I know this isn’t always how others experience emotional pain. Like the author of “Loaded Novella,” I have had friends decide that suicide was the only option left to escape the pain. I relate to the point of view of “Loaded Novella” as much as I relate to “Greyhound.”

“The day before, I passed him at the water fountain./Said hello. He startled, somewhat smiled./Waited a beat, but I kept walking to my classroom./Would a question have saved him?” I, too, have been left trying to make sense of suicide by going through my last interactions with those friends over and over, wondering what signs I missed—wondering what I could have done differently.

The author punctuates her poem with many questions: “Debating himself?” “Was saying no an option?” “Did she clean his face…Close his eyes? Kiss his forehead?” This gives me the sense that the author is questioning everything as she tries to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

She also captures moments surrounding the tragic event in scene-like snippets, well-defined by each stanza’s heading. The second stanza’s heading, “Tardy Guardians,” gives us a sense of the overwhelming guilt that the stanza’s subjects feel. “Students, teachers, administrators, parents—/tardy guardians around the freshly planted dogwood./Sunshine bounced off glasses, an attentive dragonfly/insisted it was spring.”

In each stanza, the well-chosen details clearly paint the deep emotion of each scene. The “attentive dragonfly” contrasts the affect of the mourners who feel they didn’t pay enough attention to Brian Davis. They regret not standing around Brian and giving him the support he needed; instead, too late, they stand “around the freshly planted dogwood” that marks a lost life.

Like the teacher in “Loaded Novella,” I fail to make sense of a young person’s decision to make his escape final when his whole life lies ahead. I hope campaigns like “It Gets Better” and “#StayWeirdStayDifferent" can keep kids from drowning in the incredible pain they feel by showing the possibility of a different way to escape—because I know that, for some, a trip to summer camp isn’t enough.

Miriam McNamara is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is finishing her second novel, a young adult historical fiction set in 1930. Her first YA novel, set in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy, is currently on submission, represented by the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. When Miriam is not writing, she is styling hair at Bari Salon in West Asheville and educating clients on one of its product lines.