‘Even If You Were Here’ by Angi Becker Stevens is a great little story which appears in the September issue of The Collagist. Essentially it’s a character study of a thirteen-year-old girl who, I realise now I come to think about it, is never actually named. I didn’t notice this when I was reading, and I think that’s because the character is so solidly imagined – she becomes familiar enough to us that we don’t need to know her name, because we know her.
The first-person voice that Becker Stevens creates is pitch-perfect: halting (almost staccato at times), candid, spilling thoughts out almost as they come to mind – it sounds like a teenage girl talking to you, sorting through a confusing time of life as she does so.
And what a time this girl is going through: her younger sister Francie is preoccupied with death; her older brother Peter has gone of travelling to who-knows-where; her mother is struggling to cope; she wonders who her father is (whoever he is, he’s also Peter’s father, but not Francie’s); and she’s exploring her own burgeoning sexuality.
What I particularly appreciate about this story is that, even though we see everything through the eyes of the protagonist, the other characters nevertheless come to life independently. We can sense the whirlwind of emotions that Francie must be feeling, even though we mostly only have her sister’s wry observations of Francie pretending to die every day (‘Some days she freezes to death and the house is nice and quiet so I can pretend I’m home alone.’). The presence of Peter looms large, even though he isn’t there; our protagonist wonders whether her brother is searching or just escaping:
‘I didn’t understand what it meant to find yourself [she says]. I didn’t know how Peter could possibly find himself anyplace we weren’t in. I thought losing yourself was a better phrase for what he was trying to do.’
The girl’s mother is a closed book to her; all she really knows is that she’s ‘very tired’ – but even that is enough to open the character to us as readers. Then there’s Stacey, the girl who – tentatively at first, then less so – is becoming the protagonist’s lover. One gets the sense that Stacey is as much an anchor as a lover for the girl, the only person in her life who speaks plainly – the only person, perhaps, who is there for her.
Through these waters, our protagonist tries to navigate, tries to shake off her family and become herself. Perhaps she can do that; perhaps it’s beyond possibility at the present time; perhaps distancing herself is the wrong approach. ‘Ever If You Were Here’ is a thoughtful, well-written piece at which I recommend you take a look.