“Spit” by Michelle Hart
Volume #3, Issue #29 • April 18, 2015
Michelle Hart earned her BA in English and Philosophy from Hofstra University, where she was awarded the Eugene Schneider Prose Award for Fiction. She is currently a part of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, where she also teaches undergraduate writing. She resides in New York City.
It feels like the beginning of something, or the end of something, or maybe both. For Mallory, everything is in its right place. It is late August. Mallory and Olivia are in the backseat, the bands of the headphones broken in half so that they can listen to Mallory’s Walkman together. Olivia’s head is resting on Mallory’s shoulder. The music from Olivia’s half of the headphones vibrates, sends a tickle through Mallory’s body.
They arrive at the beach house a little before noon. While Mallory’s parents settle in, Mallory and Olivia change into their bathing suits and rush to the beach, as if time itself has taken human form and is chasing them.
And it is, in a way. A week from now, Olivia, who is one year older than Mallory, will head off to college, to Ithaca. Wasn’t Ithaca where the dude from The Odyssey started out? This is a thought that only further compounds the far-from-home aspect of Olivia’s leaving. Ithaca is only five hours from Stillwater, New Jersey, but it feels to Mallory as if Olivia is headed for the moon.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I love writing stories about female friends. There aren’t enough stories that center squarely on friendships among women. These friendships are often so much more complicated than they appear on the surface. For this story, I wanted to explore the unique kind of hurt that occurs when a girl sees her best friend go off to college, while she herself has to stay behind. There’s a sense that the world has turned but she’s still stuck in place. One of my biggest fears in life is the general fear of missing out—that other people are having experiences to which I’ll never be privy. As an introvert, I have both a fear of missing out and a fear of going out. In some ways being an introvert is like serving a life sentence without a cellmate. Having a best friend go off to college is a crystallization of this anxiety.
Did you consider telling the story from the points of view of both Mallory and Olivia? Did you consider telling it in the first person, rather than in third person?
This story was always Mallory’s. The dynamic in this story is such that Olivia would be looking toward the future, while Mallory would be looking toward the past. Mallory would be more concerned about thinking through past events, which makes for a more interesting read. In terms of perspective, I’ve written drafts of this story in first person and in third person. At first, because the story hems so close to my own experience, first person felt natural. I realized, however, that a certain amount of distance was required. Some of the emotions in the story are maybe too messy for a first person narrator to untangle, without resorting to over-explaining.
How much of a grasp do you think Olivia has on what Mallory feels for her? And what do you think Mallory’s friendship means to her? For example, does she see Mallory as a friend-for-life, or as a station in life?
“A friend-for-life or a station in life.” I really like that! I think Olivia sees Mallory as a bit of both. Mallory might sense this ambiguity, which is one reason she’s grasping so strongly onto the past. It’s difficult to say whether Olivia is aware of Mallory’s feelings because even for Mallory, the feelings are not fully formed. Having said that, I do think a part of Olivia recognizes these feelings and the struggle within Mallory.
Here’s a potentially obnoxious question: With which of the two girls in the story do you most identify? In high school, were you ever best friends with someone who was a year ahead of or a year behind you?
I definitely identify with Mallory, but I certainly empathize with both characters. In high school, I did have a friend who was a year ahead of me and I was always amazed (and always, always anxious) over how vast a one-year age difference seemed. Even now, in my twenties, I see her as being much older.
Have you thought about writing more stories about Mallory and Olivia? I can imagine there being a story or two from when they were younger than they are in “Spit,” and I can definitely imagine a story or two from their college days. Heck, I can even imagine one that takes place when they’re in their fifties!
Part of the fun of writing these characters was that, at least to me, there seemed to be so much history between them. Not only have they been good friends for eleven years, but they’ve also been next-door neighbors. Indeed, the very first draft of this story was long and messy because I kept wanting to add anecdotes from their friendship. Yet there’s also the notion that their (adult) lives are just beginning. I wonder what their lives would look like at fifty!
What are you working on now?
How convenient that this question and the previous question are so close! Right now, I’m working on a novel about Mallory’s experience following the events of this story. (So, to succinctly answer your last question about whether I can see myself writing more about Mallory and Olivia: Yes, I can.) The book, as it is now, spans about a decade in Mallory’s life—from ages sixteen to twenty-six.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
This comes from the writer Tayari Jones: Every story is the story of a relationship and it’s the writer’s job to “show the love.” As a writer you can get away with almost anything as long as you show the character(s) in the story caring deeply about someone. Love—true love, not a simply a gesture at love—is a sort of story-currency: it can buy you a lot of space. It’s something that seems so obvious, but I’ve found that this little nugget of wisdom affects both my writing and my reading.