31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 16: “Shared Room on Union” by Steven Heighton

May 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Dead Are More Visible

The_Dead_Are_More_VisibleIn the Bare It for Books 2014 calendar, a wall calendar featuring “nearly nude” photographs of prominent Canadian writers (the proceeds go to PEN Canada), Mr. June, Steven Heighton, is photographed sitting in the trunk of a car. This pose takes on a particularly cheeky resonance for anyone familiar with his story “Shared Room on Union,” which appeared in The Fiddlehead and the 2010 edition of Best Canadian Stories; it is also included in Heighton’s 2012 collection The Dead Are More Visible. A brief, mordantly humorous vignette, “Shared Room on Union” addresses a question you probably didn’t even think to ask: What happens if the guy who carjacks your Volvo can’t drive stick?

Short answer: the guy gets frustrated and locks you and your fiancée in the trunk, then abandons you there.

This being Heighton, though, the (somewhat absurd) situation is merely the springboard for an examination of the couple’s relationship – its bedrock and its fault lines. Heighton is a careful and protean stylist, highly attuned to the nuances and potentialities of language. In “Shared Room on Union,” the dialogue between the couple locked in the car trunk yields volumes about their shared intimacy and throws light on the niggling, petty annoyances that are inevitable in any long-term union.

Take, for instance, the way café manager Janna seems to blame her fiancé, Justin, for their predicament based on the fact that Justin neglected to inform their assailant, prior to being locked in the trunk, that Janna is claustrophobic. This despite the fact that Justin himself ended up in the trunk after being pistol-whipped by the would-be carjacker and momentarily losing consciousness. Their snidely bickering dialogue in the enclosed confines of the car trunk belies their perilous situation, coming across as the kind of tossed-off disagreement a couple might have while doing the after-dinner dishes together:

I’ve told you I’m claustrophobic. Why didn’t you tell him?

He probably wouldn’t have known the word. Christ, my head.

Of course he would have known it.

And I didn’t know. I mean, I thought you were just saying that before. Everyone says they’re claustrophobic.

I don’t even like when you pull the quilt over us!

To make love, he thought, in an exclusive cocoon, cut off from the world.

The ironic distance between the tone of the disagreement and its setting is heightened by the line about making love in a “cocoon, cut off from the world” – which is precisely the situation in which the two currently find themselves. The distance between the (pre)marital bed and the car trunk is at once enormous and nonexistent.

Janna and Justin’s squabbling continues unabated throughout much of their ordeal, or at least up to the point at which Janna’s nervous system finally capitulates and she passes out. Janna complains about Justin forgetting to carry his cell phone and thus being unable to call for help. Justin loses patience with Janna when she starts to panic, and snaps at her when she challenges him on the fundamentals of their situation, such as whether they have enough oxygen. “You’re supposed to be a doctor!” she says. “I’m not a doctor, you know that. Jesus.” (Justin works at the local university, doing research into babies with fetal alcohol syndrome.)

There is irony, too, in the fact that Justin and Janna’s sniping is mirrored by their assailant, whom they overhear on his cell phone, talking to someone about takeout pizza: “I don’t know why the fuck the thing hasn’t come, you call them back yourself! I know, I know, that’s why I said don’t use them anymore, didn’t I? Yeah. That’s right. And pineapple on just half this time, right? And don’t call back. I might be longer, there’s no car now.” The self-conscious normalcy in this conversation renders it that much more ironic, and that much funnier.

Indeed, the whole situation is laced in irony. When the man with the gun first approaches the car, Justin and his fiancée are parked in front of Janna’s apartment saying goodnight before parting. The couple always sleeps apart on Thursday nights, we are told, putatively so that Janna can be well-rested for her “nightmare day” shift on Friday. Privately, Justin feels that this is a last stab at independence on her part, a “vestige” of their separate lives prior to becoming a couple. Justin, by contrast, “could never take in too much of her”; when he tries to consider the ebb and flow of mutual desire, the need for reciprocity and “mutuality” in a relationship, “his mind would start to drift, unable to concentrate on the matter for so long, and he would simply want her body next to his again.”

Needless to say, when his wish is granted soon after, it is in neither the context nor the situation he was imagining. “In the deeps of the trunk, furled on their sides in mirror image, they lay with knees pressed together, faces close. Her breaths, coming fast, were hot, coppery, sour.” Here, Heighton emphasizes the proximity of the couple by way of olfactory detail, something that the critic Alex Good points out is very difficult to pull off effectively. The insistence on smell to underscore the uncomfortably constrained conditions inside the trunk recurs later, when Janna loses control of her bladder due to fear and exhaustion: “There was a smell like ammonia and he thought he felt dampness through the right knee of his jeans.” This enforced closeness is counterpointed by an image of FAS siblings together in the womb: “Entombed in their toxic primordial sea, the two had seemed to be holding each other in a consoling embrace.”

The couple does manage to escape from the confines of the car trunk, but significantly, Heighton withholds the details of how this transpires. Their release occurs offstage, in the interstice between sections in the story. The coda describes the way in which Janna and Justin regale friends with the tale of their ordeal, exaggerating and embellishing for dramatic effect, although this forced revelry is only for public display; between each other they never speak of their shared experience, which brought them close together in ways neither one of them could have anticipated.

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