The Loss of All Lost Things
by Amina Gautier
Elixir Press. 2015.
Maybe there is no hierarchy of suffering, no hierarchy of loss. Then again, of course there is. In “Lost and Found,” the first story in Amina Gautier’s lovely collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, a boy has been “plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk” by a strange man, pulled into a car, and taken away. But he’d rather think of himself as “lost” than “taken” since, after all, “things that are lost can be found.” “If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.” Then he could lie quietly with the leashes and keys, umbrellas and gloves, “lost amongst all of the other lost things of which he is but one.”
There are writers who seem to revel in their characters’ suffering; a story like this one could easily lose itself in its own horrors. But Gautier’s is a restrained talent and, at every step, she chooses precise articulation over gross exaggeration. Her new collection describes loss like a Cubist might: from every angle, height, vantage. In these stories, children are lost (in more ways than one), as are lovers, ambition, a sense of footing in the world.
After all, there is a way in which one loss is like another. In the collection’s title story, which picks up “Lost and Found” from a different perspective, the lost boy’s mother, lost in her grief, watches a TV program on “lost cities,” comparing those losses to her own: “Now she imagines that their home is one of those homes in that Roman city that the archaeologists found lost under layers of civilizations and her body is one of the bodies they discovered buried beneath the ash.”
But then again, it isn’t true; no loss is like any other. The boy’s mother goes on to remember how she’d once lost a birthday card, a camera, her virginity, and realizes, “no other loss compares to the loss of one small boy,” and, more importantly, that one great loss contains within itself all the smaller losses that preceded it: “losing him makes her feel all of the other losses once more.”
This thought—that a great loss can contain lesser losses within itself, like a set of Russian dolls—is echoed in another story, when a girl who has lost her lover, along with her sense of self, becomes “enamored of the arrogance of her suffering, the sweeping way it swallowed all other feelings, washing them away like a monsoon.”
There is quite a bit of echoing, a kind of visual rhyming, in these stories. A thought, or an image—like the ruins of Pompeii—will appear in one story and reappear, later, in another story entirely, dressed in different clothing. In one, a woman grasps “the soft and tenuous braids” of her lover, “undoing the plaited strands.” In another, a girl sits on a stoop with her boyfriend, doing the opposite: “Nimbly, she braids his hair, evoking order out of chaos.” Again and again, the doing and undoing of hair appears, each time signifying something different and yet entangled within the same web of meaning. A teenage girl cuts her hair, the hair her mother “had diligently oiled and braided and brushed and helped her grow and take care of for years”—and grows, instead, “short baby dread locks.” Hair, we’re reminded, is never just hair. Hair is loaded with meaning—personal, political, gendered, ethnic, racial. In “Intersections,” a middle-class, white, married professor is entranced, at a talk, by “the black girl in the second row with the hair he could not fathom.” He takes the opportunity to project his own worries onto that set of braids: “Writ on her scalp was the map of his life and all the winding paths it had taken.” These include “his years in graduate school, his first failed job and his subsequent tenure and promotion at his second appointment.” But what about the girl? They have an affair, of course, which disappoints them both. She bewilders him. One night he wakes up as she’s sleeping and looks at her, trying “to take a clue from her hair while she slept.” She is lying with her back to him, so her braids are all he can see. “He didn’t know what they might signify, but he didn’t trust them.”
Gautier isn’t unkind to her characters, but she doesn’t indulge them, either. In “What Matters Most,” which is written in the second person, “you” are the mother of a daughter (that same daughter who cut off her hair): “Sixteen years old and already Brooke is a stranger to you.” “You” are a middle-aged divorcee who has fallen for her Puerto Rican tango instructor. One night, you invite him to dinner, nervously awaiting your daughter’s judgment. But your daughter and your man get along famously, and at the end of the evening, after you’ve washed the dishes and scrubbed down the kitchen, you find them alone together on the balcony, teasing each other, laughing. “It would be good to laugh right now,” you think, “but whatever they are saying is lost to you.” After all, there is more than one way to lose a child.
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