Recommended Reading: A Girl Goes into the Forest

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We never go dancing anymore—a common complaint among couples who’d been together a while. She and James hadn’t gone back to the park dances in the three years they’d been together. But James loved to dance, he’d said. His enjoyment had been obvious that night, and she’d seen no hint of his intensely somber reserve in the rhythmic stamp of his feet, the exuberant swing of his arms. Yet he’d lost his interest in dancing, while his brooding side seemed to magnify. It was as if he’d become someone else entirely. He insisted, “No one stays the same.”  

She’d become someone different, too. A section of her left breast had been removed. When you have a lump in your breast, even before you know what it might mean, you begin blaming yourself. Drinking tap water. Drinking wine. Some way that she hadn’t taken care of herself, had grown slack or not paid enough attention. There were the irrational thoughts, too: too much sex, too little, the wrong partners. “We’re going in,” the surgeon had said on the phone, explaining that the lab results were inconclusive. An excisional biopsy. “Why leave it in there when we don’t know what it is?” He said, “In and out,” and handed the phone over to his secretary for scheduling, details, instructions. 

Even before the biopsy, from the moment the surgeon made the determination, James began to avoid her: late hours at work, a big game on TV at the sports bar with friends. Each morning he was gone before she arose for work, those last few days in the office before she went on medical leave, though once upon a time he’d enjoyed showering with her first thing in the day. He wouldn’t make love with her. Perhaps he was afraid, feared taking pleasure in her body while knowing, as she did, that a treasonous mass lay within the pocket of her unbreached breast. Perhaps the best he could do for her, or for himself, was to avoid active demonstrations of loving the beauty of her so as to lessen the later hurt of her not-beautiful, potentially grotesque appearance. He may have feared betraying a repulsion already in the making. Or maybe his attraction to her had already diminished; he’d grown dissatisfied, and now the surgery made him feel trapped. 

Still, she thought James would come around. Before he left on his trip to Atlanta, he’d break down. He’d understand that she needed reassurance, she needed to know that the wounded breast didn’t deter him. She was almost desperate for his attention to her physical being. But even that last day, he focused on packing his suitcase as if it were some complicated strategy to execute and notate for future purposes. She couldn’t be sure but thought he might have left for the airport early. 

Later, she would learn from his sister that he’d asked his younger brother to look out for Anna while he was away. “He was concerned about your stability,” Janet proclaimed. In that phone call Anna would also learn the family viewed her as a seductress, one who could not help but to betray James, even with his own brother. No one would seem to consider James’s request of Jonathan an abdication of responsibility.

In the parking lot of the bar, under the engorged moon, Jonathan had steered Anna to her car, his arm around her waist while he unlocked the door. He sat her in the passenger seat and under those magnificent skies drove them home, to her home with James who was in Atlanta, and they went inside, and she found herself on her bed with Jonathan. Astonished that he had simply placed her there, and was beside her there, on the downy comforter, the stacks of soft pillows wreathing her head. 

They shouldn’t be there. 

She led him to the den. At least she’d been capable of that. 

About The Book

Award-winning author Peg Alford Pursell explores and illuminates love and loss in 78 hybrid stories and fables. A Girl Goes into the Forest immerses readers in the complex desires, contradictions, and sorrows of daughters, wives, and husbands, artists, siblings, and mothers. In forests literal and metaphorical, the characters try, fail, and try again to see the world, to hear each other, and to speak the truth of their longings. Powerful, lyrical, and precise, Pursell’s stories call up a world at once mysterious and recognizable.

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Article originally Published in the February/March 2020 Issue “Short Stories”

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