Feminine mystique

“So We Can Glow” by Leesa Cross-Smith. Contributed by Grand Central Publishing
“So We Can Glow” by Leesa Cross-Smith. Contributed by Grand Central Publishing

Cross-Smith explores in the desires of women and girls

Leesa Cross-Smith’s women urinate in the woods at country club wedding receptions, are overly concerned with the way they smell and obsess over husband’s old girlfriends. They stake their claims on sports stars, music stars, nature documentary television stars. They’re often in “want” — not love — and they want a lot, unapologetically.

The opening story, “We, Moons,” spells out her theme: a joyous embracing of modern womanhood with all its pitfalls and landmines. These are women who are willing to sacrifice everything, flipping their lives upside down and in some cases offering their bodies for the “right” men, but who are also enough without them. “We are complete without them but we want them anyway. We love them but we want to hide from them,” she writes.

The men aren’t the point — Cross-Smith makes this clear in “A Girl Has Her Secrets,” another anthem to femininity. “You never have to apologize for anything feminine or for putting on your best red lipstick only to stay in the house.”

But the men are always around: husbands with their old girlfriends, bad boys who are somehow still lovable. Even a country music artist named Tucker pops up in sexy sweatpants; our narrator, the babysitter, charged with watching his toddler daughter between his sultry, cigarette-tucked-in-guitar-strings performances.

There is frequently great economy in these 42 stories, some of which are barely two pages long. In works like “Low, Small,” with its spent sensuality and hint of violence, and the one-paragraph “Bearish,” about a woman named Dolly who climbs under a bearskin rug to seduce her husband, Cross-Smith’s descriptive language shines. An audio book narrator’s voice is “fuzzy paper crumbling,” her wait is as “stilly as the dead bear’s heart.”

A short and sweet story halfway through the collection, “Knock Out the Heartlights So We Can Glow,” shows Cross-Smith at her best. Complete in one paragraph, a woman named Exie wanders the aisles of her safe spaces, an all-night grocery store, touching and replacing items. She later tries to explain her feelings to her husband: “Reminded him of that morning after church when her hair was baptism-wet. How she sat at the kitchen table, born again, drowning in the sunlight. Her husband was a good man and she loved him, but he didn’t know how to be special, how to glow. She said it was pretty simple and she’d teach him. There was no big secret. You just had to let the things in your heart get real dark first.”

The story has flashes of the world-weary and devastating, bottomless sadness tempered with the redemption found in day-to-day life. This is short fiction that packs a wallop.

The grocery store produce section sets the stage for another charmer called “Two Cherries Under a Lavender Moon,” a love story about Henry and Astrid framed by cabbage, zucchini and strawberries. Cute but not cloying, the story’s hopefulness is as warm as a cup of hot cocoa. “The light in her heart flickered on, the loneliness scattering to the corners.”

Engagingly, certain characters reappear throughout multiple stories, allowing readers to get to know them across decades. One of these characters is Dolly, bless her heart, who reappears as a suburban housewife who has a sexually charged encounter with her husband’s coworker.

In “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying but So Are We,” Adam performs in a play that requires him to kiss a former girlfriend from 20 years ago onstage. The kiss ignites jealousy in his partner, Minnie, a cello player who keeps a secret about a fellow musician well-disguised. Later, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” gives us scenes from Adam and Caitriona’s actual play, with a perfumed, white-dressed Minnie sitting in the front row. Her presence is a distraction noted internally by both performers as stage directions cleverly describe the play within a play. The story offers a deeper perspective into the tensions and rivalries growing between Minnie and Adam that illuminates the events in “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying but So Are We.”

Exploring the complexities of a relationship facing grief is the subject of two stories, “Chateau Marmont, Champagne, Chanel” and “California, Keep Us.” A couple tries to escape their sadness through stays at posh hotels after losing a child. Highly charged sexuality mixes with denial, fear and uncertainty to paint a portrait of a modern man and a vulnerable woman that is as believable as it is poignant.

Teenage girls and their friendships take center stage in several stories. In “Winona Forever” we meet Crystal and Heather, best friends mourning the death of Crystal’s sister Amber, a Winona Ryder lookalike. Filled with details that spark memories of sleepovers, late night tears and fruity lip gloss kisses, there’s also enough of a “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates feel to imply danger ahead. When they meet again years later, their bond transcends the anxiety of flying and parenting. What Crystal calls “girl gravity” tethers her to the ground.

Cross-Smith’s exuberance shines through in these stories. In an afterword of sorts titled “Inspirations,” she lists an epically diverse array of influences ranging from Jesus Christ and R.E.M. to Anne Hathaway and Anne Sexton. It’s easy to see more than a dash of everything good in these entertaining, spirited tales.

FICTION

‘So We Can Glow’

by Leesa Cross-Smith

Grand Central Publishing

238 pages, $26