"How can we be the same
As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name—
Why have we inherited their shame?"
Things We Lost in the Fire—Mariana Enríquez (Penguin Random House, 2017)
Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life—Chelsea Martin (Soft Skull Press, 2017)
Communal Nude: Collected Essays—(e)/Active Agents, 2016)
There was a time in middle school when my mum thought I was 'on drugs'. It turns out that my pupils sometimes dilate at different speeds and this can give me a look that could be construed as bugged-out—but only if you are the mother of a teenage girl who wears black and hangs out at train stations and you are looking for a chemical explanation for her attraction towards subcultures. The local GP confirmed to Mum that I was not 'on drugs' but that pupils dilating at different speeds is very common, and that frankly most people don't even notice it. On the drive home, she said: Well, he saw you for what, two minutes? How would he know?
She was on worry overdrive for a few years because I liked the girls at school who smoked and wore glitter gel in their hair better than I liked the uptight nerds and I believe she thought a lot can go wrong for girls like that, girls with sexual experience and illegally modified school uniforms. Things can happen to those girls that might ruin an otherwise normal transition into adulthood. I guess she was right to worry. Butfor all my tender flaws, I was not a teen on drugs. I just wanted to be the way Courtney Love allowed herself be. And I'm still hungry like that.
My older brother once said, after getting married and buying a vacuum cleaner: You get married and you buy a vacuum, and then you're an adult.
He was sort of joking, but for him this seemed pretty straightforward and true. After all, most people don't change much over their lives—same shame, same level of honesty or dishonesty—but the privileges granted by adulthood mean that entry needs to be restricted. Adulthood is a kind of expertise, and possessing a body that has reached its terminal height is not enough to guarantee the privileges associated with that expertise. Arbitrary markers become cultural shorthand for belonging to the club. Marrying, having a baby, achieving a qualification, getting a 'real job', buying a household appliance. Or a whole house. But these facts—a) that I technically could have married the guy I was dating when I turned eighteen (and divorced him a year later) but not if that guy had been a girl, and b) that buying a vacuum is somewhat dependent on having a longer than month-by-month lease—are instructive as to what is usually meant by adulthood and how this category functions ideologically. Who's in, who's out, and how authority is distributed accordingly.
Politics is about arranging power. Culture is about normalising those power distributions.
Mariana Enríquez's short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire blends horror, the genre, with horror, the reality of political violence. Some of the stories are Lovecraftian tales of monsters and madness, others comment more directly on the haunted legacy of Argentina’s dictatorship years. But the first story of hers I encountered, which I returned to twice, three times, a fourth, was “The Intoxicated Years”, which my boyfriend first read to me while I drank one euro retsina on our couch, smoking inside. Unlike a lot of writing on, from, or about adolescence, “The Intoxicated Years” offers a phenomenology of adolescence as a solid state—of raw hunger and contempt—instead of as a period of ‘transition’ headed towards the stable future of adulthood.
Beginning in 1989 Argentina, a period of hyperinflation, food shortages, power blackouts, and riots, the story charts the increasingly destructive behaviour of a gang of three teenage girls. They are long-haired and probably quite sexy and they live in a shitty little town outside of Buenos Aires. They are attractive girls, and as such they know their bodies are disposable—there’s the story at school of the girl whose illegal abortion was botched and who bled to death in the street. And so rightly the girls hate men, and naturally, they use them when they need to. They also hate their parents with a delectable venom:
“Useless adults, we thought, how useless. Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls—their daughters—didn’t feel sorry for them. Our mothers seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.”
For fun, Andrea, Paula, and the narrator get stoned and go for joyrides in the back of Andrea’s boyfriend’s delivery van. They demand that he charge round corners and over speed bumps while they’re pummelled in the black back of the van. They get knocks and bruises, and sometimes there’s blood. It’s better than alcohol, they say. The boyfriend does what they ask “because he was in love with Andrea and he hoped that one day she would love him back.”
On the bus home from partying in Buenos Aires one night, they see a girl their age get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. The driver doesn’t want to let her off—they’re driving through a sinister forest, grounds that were once owned by a millionaire before they were expropriated by the state; it’s dark; there’s no actual bus stop there; it’s surely not safe for a teenage girl alone.
“Many of the passengers started waking up: one man said, But where do you want to go at this hour, dear? The girl, who was our age and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at him with such intense hatred he was struck dumb. She looked at him like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers.”
The girl with the ponytail disappears into the night. The three girls obsess over her, her strange, evil powers, the boldness of her disappearance. “No one could hurt her, we were sure of that.” This vanishing, like many of the disappearing characters in Things We Lost in the Fire, suggests the tens of thousands of people who were ‘disappeared’ during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, the period of state terrorism and mass murder Enríquez’s characters would have lived through as children. But the girl with the witchy eyes isn’t stolen or harmed, at least not as far as we know. She steals into the night with the impudence of adolescence. Adolescence as obtuse resistance, not a becoming but an already being.
The getting thrown around in the back of a boy’s van is at some point replaced by drinking whiskey at school and taking prescription drugs and passing out during class. Then starvation. With time, this appetite for getting fucked up—using intoxication and hunger to exercise control over bodies that don’t matter— becomes harder and harder to satiate. A new friend, who is rich and for that reason hated, steals money from her parents so the girls can buy antipsychotics and lose their minds. They thieve acid from boys who have crushes on them. An older girl who lives down the street, who has no food in her apartment, teaches them how to cut lines of coke. There are drug parties. Boyfriends tripping out with blood gushing out of their faces. It’s all a bit abject, really, but the feeling of fucked-up this story evokes is the closest thing to how I felt as a young person in a world ruled by “useless adults”. The hunger for getting something of my own, even if that was getting fucked up, was bigger than anything.
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Ellena Savage is a writer and reader. Her essays, poems, lectures and stories have been published and performed widely. Most reccently: Chart Collective, The Lifted Brow, Literary Hub, Cordite and Scum.