What business does a story about segregationist America not wanting (literal) aliens in vintage toy stores have in the same short story collection where readers follow a post-grad, plain Jane struggling to get by with a minimum wage job? Brenda Peynado has the answer in her debut collection, The Rock Eaters. Even in these jarring compositional spaces between each of the sixteen stories, Peynado manages to coalesce them by arguing how crucial it is that people keep in touch with their desires and the motives behind them. The stories ask: what do we want from ourselves? What do we want from others? What can one do to bridge the gap between those things, to nurture ourselves and each other?
How the speakers bridge that gap between what they want and what they want from others is not always neat or particularly nice to the people around them. In “The Whitest Girl,” want and desperation are one in the same, and in this case, they don’t mix well. The whitest, destitute girl at a private school becomes targeted by a predatory, male school janitor, and the other girls in her grade are both repulsed and envious of her attention. The girls both crave and are afraid of receiving attention based on their bodies, and the whitest girl, Terry, symbolizes in part their stark vulnerability as teenagers and their frustration with the superficial “ugliness” of her being. The girls want to both protect and crush Terry and all she represents to them. Peynado writes, “We were only each girl, one and one and one, alone in a terrifying world that wanted us to love what would hurt us” (63).
Though there is a cruelty to some of Peynado’s characters’ wants, each character teems with some undying yearning or another. This yearning for something is mostly centered around emotional intimacy, but in the case of “The Touches,” Peynado stresses the importance of physicality between people. “The Touches” begins, “I’ve been touched exactly four times in real life.” The story’s narrator unravels before the readers, detailing her dystopian reality where humans coexist in a supposedly diseased wasteland and live vicariously through a reconstructed, VR world. People can only simulate touching one another. They are left starving of that primal necessity to connect in a way that we, outside of the narrative, take for granted.
Even Peynado connotes the importance of this sort of unity through collective yearning; many of her stories dissolve into a “we” when there was previously an “I.”
The three questions I mentioned, centering around wanting and nurturing ourselves and each other, are for the reader just as much as they are for the characters in Peynado’s work. Consider, if it isn’t hard enough, the year of her publication. We need to understand ourselves and love on each other more than anything. During the brunt of a global pandemic, even the droning sound of advertisements parrot this idea of taking care of each other. Perhaps we should take the space to actively practice this act of tenderness toward the ones around us. You know this. I know this. Peynado knows this. She is begging us, and I am listening. You should give it a shot, too.
Lisa Ahima (Loyola ’21) is a New Orleans-based writer and senior at Loyola University New Orleans. Hopefully you’ll see her short stories floating around on the web sometime.