While I did vow to read five short story collections in 2008, I also find myself dipping and diving into sundry collections and journals like Tin House. I'm slowly making my way through the "Fantastic Women" issue (volume 9, number 1), and one particularly juicy nugget has grabbed me by the nose hair thus far.
The story is simply titled, "Abroad," and it's written by Judy Budnitz. I read this story a week or so ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since, wondering exactly how I should post, how much I should say, and how to summarize such a wonderfully bizarre and affecting story. So here we go...
It's about a woman and her husband traveling abroad (betcha couldn't guess, eh?). The couple gets off their train at the wrong stop and discovers that another train won't be along for three days, so they must somehow entertain themselves in a strange country until they find their way to the proper destination. They visit a church made from bones, a cemetery, they bounce through the streets from restaurants to shops, the locals pointing them to McDonald's all the way.
In the beginning, both husband and wife refer to the locals as "they," "those people," but over the course of the story something shifts. The wife stays separate from the locals distanced by custom, culture and practice. However, her husband begins to embrace the lifestyle, the language, and eventually everything melts into a confusing blur as the wife can no longer speak to her husband or understand the native tongue he's so adept at speaking. All she can do is watch as he parties with the locals, brings them round to the hotel room, asks them to stay, and they eventually take over the wife's surroundings completely putting their clothing in the wife's suitcase, making beds on the floor, and infiltrating the couple's life completely.
Budnitz's story is surreal and poignant. A whirl of language and confusion and loss. I actually sort of felt the urge to cry at the end of the story as the wife--while quite shallow and unwilling to stretch herself culturally--is unable to reach her husband both literally and figuratively. The symbolic growing apart of this couple was just heartbreaking to me perhaps because it was compressed so deftly into three days and those days into 12 pages.
"Abroad" really is a testament to the power in a writer's pen as she so artistically expresses the distance and misunderstandings that can crop up between loved ones if someone doesn't make an over effort to communicate--"build a bridge" for lack of a better expression. I only hope I can express complicated emotions and relationships in such clever ways one day in my own writing. In the meantime, "Abroad" is a wonderful work to ponder.