Love, lust and longing abide in ‘Virgin and Other Stories’

“Do you really think people change, or just seem to change?”

This seemingly innocent question is posed by Sheila, an evangelical Christian, to her husband Jake, who she can no longer bear to sleep with, in the title story of April Ayers Lawson’s dazzling debut collection, “Virgin and Other Stories.”

Jake senses the duplicitous tone of his wife’s query. For Sheila is skipping out on therapy, doing more than purchasing paper towels when she leaves the house for several hours in the evenings and is unabashedly flirting with other men.

How can he love her, when he no longer knows her? “She never betrayed guilt about what she was doing to him, and that she behaved so normally around him made him think she either loved him so much that her feelings for other men didn’t affect her feelings for him, or that she didn’t love him at all.”

This artful exploration of the excruciating limbo between love and apathy, desire and repulsion, affection and aggression, embodies all five stories set in the present-day South. But if there’s one takeaway from this intrepid book, it’s that the nature of human emotions render such binaries futile.

“Three Friends in a Hammock” is a lyrical ode to the essential truths of female friendships, how they move and breathe like independent organisms. Lawson achieves this with three nameless characters who seem simultaneously interchangeable and distinct.

“One of us was tall and two of us were short and two of us were skinny. One of us had large breasts. One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced.”

The rhythmic swaying of the hammock, the most intimate of ecosystems, inspires one woman to reconsider the measure of love, its fluidity and fragility.

“I could not decide if love was real as a thing or something that could never entirely be proven, like God, and could only be experienced in the act of reaching and so in retrospect would always fall in doubt. I could not decide if I could love and be loved factually.”

In the sublime “The Way You Must Play Always,” 13-year-old Gretchen gets caught making out with her cousin, Jaime, and as partial punishment, her parents steer her toward a musical instrument, the piano, to fill her time. Her reluctance to play resounds with each key strike, until she meets Wesley, her teacher’s brother, who is ailing from a brain tumor in the back bedroom of his sister’s home. Gretchen becomes infatuated with his shaven head and his affinity for porn.

“Something in her belly stirred, this due not to his touch but to his smell. He did not smell good. But something in his musk, part dirt like the joint he smoked, part winey and sweet, made her want to put her face to his neck, the way she had with Jaime.”

Her bravado is tempered by her wish to please her parents, especially her father, for whom she falsely promises to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” “The words felt oddly disconnected from her, like lies. Or like their faces, desperate for affection she could not give them.” This tension between moral fortitude and carnal temptation is a theme expertly executed.

“The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” lacks the precision and dimension of the other stories. Conner, a brooding teenager, accompanies his mother to the funeral of her best friend, Charlene, a trans woman who Conner openly ridiculed during her life and continues to disdain after her death.

“She would cross and uncross her legs, which bugged me because they looked like a real woman’s legs.” His contempt extends to “other people pretending to be a sex they weren’t. Imagining them everywhere, men trying to trick me into thinking they were women, and women pretending to be men.”

Conner suggests that the social isolation he experiences as a homeschooled student, coupled with his secret knowledge of Charlene’s one harmless indiscretion, justifies his attitude. But this connection is dubious and unconvincing, and nothing else we learn about him – his awkward romantic relationship with a girl who attends his church, his jealousy of his mother and Charlene’s friendship, his obsession with Helga from Andrew Wyeth’s “The Helga Pictures” – sheds light on his blatant hostility. Unlike the other vivid characters in “Virgin and Other Stories,” Conner falls flat.

“Vulnerability,” the concluding and most sensual story, features a married painter who falls in love with both her art dealer and one of his clients, another artist she’s long admired. Lawson impeccably captures the sexual tension of silences and the “hints of conquest” in the early phase of coupling.

“There was no sense of being watched by a man as the gallerist in that moment watched her, as if he could with his eyeballs stroke even her innards; his eyes; the pressure of his gaze; the narrowed feeling in the air; his eyes. Yeah it turned me on.”

“Vulnerability” exemplifies Lawson’s mastery of the forces of attraction and the intricacies of courtship. “What is it about a man carrying your luggage, the way it appears lighter in his grip? The way you feel both grateful and entitled, and that if he hadn’t offered to carry it he wouldn’t be a gentlemen, would be disrespecting you as a woman?”

Lawson’s palpable prose carries “Virgin and Other Stories,” and like any

whirlwind love affair, leaves us breathless and wanting more.

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