Joel Clay Blog
Stories That Haunt: “Rondine al Nido” (2012)
Claire Vaye Watkins is an acclaimed young author who grew up in the Mojave Desert. She is also the daughter of Charles Manson's one-time right-hand man, Paul Watkins. “Rondine al Nido” is the third story in Watkins' hit-filled short story collection Battleborn. Like its desert setting, Battleborn is dry, sparse, and scattered with skeletons. Whether Watkins was "pandering" (powerful essay Watkins published in Tinhouse entitled) or not, Battleborn is a rich short story collection, one I often revisit in my head.
"Rondine," takes place in Nevada—the Battle Born State. It is a story within a story. The unnamed thirty-year-old protagonist is dating a man for whom she has begun to fall and in whom she, uncharacteristically, trusts. The man is an attorney who tells the woman horrific stories about abusers and victims from his social worker past. “It will be as though she has finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world. … For the first time in her life, she will feel understood.” She asks him to tell her something terrible he has done. He accidentally burned a building down as a child. “’Now show me yours, he’ll say.’” She tells of stealing, bullying. “These she’ll have been carrying from girlhood like very small stones in her pocket. The sensible man will be waiting.” And then she begins the real story, one that had burdened her for almost fifteen years, a story she hadn’t told anyone, had buried.
Watkins wrote "Rondine" in third person. When the story within the story begins, the unnamed protagonist's pronoun shifts from "she" to "our girl." It was June 2001. Our Girl was in high school in small-town-Vegas outskirts working at a pizza parlor with her best friend, Lena. In the opening scene Our Girl and Lena stand across from each other, eyes locked, hands gripping oven racks, a game they play, seeing who can hold out longer. Lena removes her hands first. Our Girl leaves her hands on the rack a beat for effect. The hierarchy of this friendship and the presence of pain are established from the opening scene. After work the two girls drive to the Vegas strip. Lena's boyfriend just broke up with her and Our Girl comforts her.
On the strip they meet four older, baggy-clothes-wearing, fake-name-using young men.
The young men pretend to be younger; the girls pretend to be older. The young men give the girls alcohol. They walk between hotels. Our Girl and Lena step into the MGM Grand lobby bathroom where Lena throws up while Our Girl holds her hair. Lena says she misses Kyle (boyfriend who just broke up with her) and wants to go home. After helping clean Lena up and recalling a seemingly random scene - though it's presence at this critical juncture indicates its importance - with her stepfather at the kitchen table, Our Girl says "You're fine. Let's have a good time." They end up in the boys' hotel room watching a Halle Barry movie. Our Girl is in a bed with one of the young men while Lena passes out on the second bed. One of the other three guys goes to IHOP and the other two partially undress themselves and fully undress Lena. The bigger guy calls Lena vulgar names and puts his dick in her face. Lena eventually wakes up disoriented. "She stares at our girl from between the two beds, her naked body a question she can't ask, a prayer she can't recall." The guys look at Our Girl for what she determines is permission. This is possibly the most heartbreaking moment of the story. Lena reaches for Our Girl's hand and Lena takes it. "'It's okay,' our girl says, 'We're having fun.'" Then Our Girl urges Lena back to the other bed with two young men.
The best friends don't discuss the incident afterward and predictably drift apart. "Sometimes our girl will be at the oven, watching Lena's back as she works the line, and the heat will well up in her and she'll want to cry out. But what would she say? ... By September, she and Lena will not even nod in the halls." The story concludes on 9/11/2001. "Things will never be the same," the loudspeaker announces, "as if she needs to be told this. As if she doesn't know the instability of a tall tower, a city's hunger for ruin. As if this weren't what she came for."
Why did Our Girl betray Lena? Why did she grant permission to predators at the expense of her best friend? What, who scooped out something from inside her to create a gaping void? We don't know. Something to do with her stepfather probably. We get the idea that Our Girl had suffered - she certainly lacked Lena's naivete, innocence - and she wanted Lena to suffer with her. It's not that simple. Credit to Watkins, Our Girl looking back doesn't try to explain. Our Girl was, however, a girl, probably sixteen. She didn't know what she was doing, but she understood she was causing pain. She chose pain, for herself and Lena. She doesn't get those moments back. She can't return Lena's innocence to her.
The language, the narrative distance, all that is unsaid - they add a layer of enchantment and gravity to an already grave story.
The most painful aspect of the story to me is the immediate dissolution of the friendship after the incident. Our Girl and Lena desperately need each other, but they don't have the words, the understanding, to deal with it, to heal together, to repent and forgive. Their failure to reconcile, Our Girl's failure to apologize, crushes me. And her own failure, both in the incident and the aftermath, burdens her for her entire young adult life until she finds an empathetic partner with first-hand knowledge of the depths of human depravity, and she finally tells her story, her way of repenting. And this gives the story a tangible and much-needed note of hope. But that didn't keep "Rondine al Nido" from haunting me long after I'd turned the page to Watkins' next Battleborn story.
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Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.
- Soren Kierkegaard