Put Your Head in My Lap: Stories
by Claudia Smith
Portland, OR: Future Tense Books, 2009
Claudia Smith's 16 stories in Put Your Head in My Lap can and should be read in one sitting. From the first line of the first story--"My son asked me to tape his hands and feet"--to the final sentence of the last story--"It happened, it happened, she'll say and you can't take it back"--readers are drawn into a world that manages to be both surreal and real in a way that is very in-your-face.
Many of her stories have similar elements: love tinged with sadness, loss and separation, single mothers trying to raise their children, people dealing with disappointment. The stories are heartbreaking in their honesty. Nothing is sugar-coated and while readers may feel the need to look away from the raw emotion displayed on the pages, their eyes can't help but be drawn back.
In "Snow Squall," a young married couple is trapped in their tiny apartment during a terrible snow storm. Though out of work and money, they are doing their best to celebrate the husband's birthday when the wife realizes she's having a miscarriage. He tries to comfort her but she shuts him out, physically and emotionally. She locks herself in the bathroom and tells him not to talk to her. The pain she feels is palpable through such lines as this one:
"Daniel, don't say anything," she says, "please just don't say anything. Because right now I feel like I really hate you. And I know I don't but right now I absolutely do."
The husband shows his love for her by not getting angry and by trying to find a neighbor who will take them to the hospital or at least let him use a phone to call an ambulance. No one does, though, and when he returns the bleeding has stopped and the baby is gone. Somehow this seems to close the rift that had opened between them and they sit in a chair together, watching the snow storm, each coming to the conclusion "that this is probably their worst moment." The story is candid and far from uplifting, leaving readers to wonder if the couple will survive this "worst moment" and come out of it for the better or if this will be the final straw in a series of disappointments.
My favorite story is "Hook", which actually is a bit of a deviation from Smith's typical pieces in this collection. The story is about a teenaged girl who "hooks" a man she encounters in a drugstore. Dressed like a schoolgirl, she flirts and acts younger than she is to entice the man to have sex with her. She lies about how she and her mother need money and he'll have to pay her first. They go to a cheap, garish hotel room, the perfect setting for their transgression, which ends up being more innocently heartbreaking than vulgar. The man is desperate and distraught as he rubs against her, both of them still clothed. When he is finished he is near tears, repentant, and she tries to comfort him.
"So don't feel bad," I repeated. And pulled his sad face into my lap. I felt something open and shut inside me. A physical opening and closing, like a valve in my heart. It wasn't love that I felt, of course it couldn't have been. But it was something like love, a mixture of gratefulness and yearning.
What is especially interesting to me about this piece is that, while they are both affected by this encounter, each comes out of it differently. The man will probably carry this regret with him for the rest of his life, while the girl seems somehow freer, more observant, and is acutely aware of the fact that she has two hundred dollars tucked into her shoe.
Put Your Head in My Lap is a collection that will stay with readers for a long time after they've finished the final page. The stories embed themselves like seeds, slowly growing larger until you find yourself thinking about them at random intervals and hoping the stories you write are as emotionally stirring as Claudia Smith's.
About the AuthorRachel Whitaker is a degree-candidate in Rosemont College's Publishing Master's program. She has had several film reviews and articles published in Ticket Magazine as well as the Ambler Gazette, both in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she hopes to work as a copyeditor. Originally from Southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Norristown, PA with her fiancé and their two cats.
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