by Gianni Washington
June 1, 2021
Gianni Washington is an Associate Fiction Editor with West Trade Review. She has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey, and her work has been published in The Fat City Review online, LitroNY.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys. She is also featured on episodes 8 (Dec. 2020) and 10 (Feb. 2021) of The Great American Folk Show reading from her short story, “Homunculus.”
Unsaid Things by Joanna Acevedo; Flexible Press; 207 pages; $18
The center of this collection of thirteen stories can be found in the authorial dedication “to all the men I’ve loved and lost.” Unsaid Things is indeed a reflection on love from the perspective of twelve women and one gay man. Because of similarities shared by the protagonists—immaturity, a penchant for cigarettes, inarticulable yearning, and an anxiety that hovers lightly over their every romantic decision—one could easily interpret these stories as belonging to a single person at slightly different stages of life. Unsaid Things deals with what love means when you’re living out an adolescence that extends into your early thirties. As in real life, the ways in which Acevedo’s protagonists are affected by love when they are young informs their choices in adulthood to dole out cruelty in kind, embrace hope, or simply lock their hearts away. Often Acevedo’s characters view love as either a state of being one achieves when certain boxes are ticked, or an impossible, almost mythical thing whose appearance no one can be sure of. More than once, characters find themselves bound by love without knowing how it happened, with their own preconceived notions of what love is, or should be, deceiving them into dismissing the signs en route to that place of knowing.
One such story, “Why Does There Have to Be a Why?” sees Aaron, a writer with a sort-of partner, outright rejecting said partner’s multiple proposals of marriage as well as his reasons for loving Aaron in the first place, which when listed include “voice,” “teeth,” and “pupils.” Citing the supposed absurdity of this list, Aaron concludes that those “aren’t reasons to love someone” and later argues that all the two of them do is have sex and “hang out,” activities that in his estimation don’t teach anyone enough to justify loving another person. However, Aaron eventually realizes that, though the reasons to love someone can be many and hard to articulate, they are also incredibly easy to recognize when you let go and let yourself see them. A story with a similar takeaway is “How Does One Feel Close to Another Person?” An adjunct professor poses this and other questions to her students, hoping to see her own life more clearly. She has been with her partner for four years, through various changes in circumstance, yet both refuse to believe their partnership is “the end of the line,” with the protagonist Caroline claiming she just hasn’t found anyone better. Though the implication is that Caroline and Fargo are mere stops on one another’s greater journey, mishaps with other men in her life, as well as a work-related incident that threatens Fargo’s job, help them both to place a higher value on the relationship they’ve built together, however accidentally.
Acevedo's collection is strongest in the places where a character’s relatable expectations are over-turned, and they learn something that they will likely strap to their backs and carry with them throughout the rest of their lives. These moments encourage readers to put the murmurings of their own brains under a microscope and keep looking until they’re able to distinguish the world’s collective point of view from their own. You’re too old to do this. Love looks like that. It’s wrong to feel like this. Often, the stories end on a revelation, which is almost a shame because as a reader I grew used to seeing each character land themselves in the disastrous situations that taught them these valuable lessons. It would have been refreshing to more often see these lessons applied in some way before story’s end. Otherwise, I can easily picture each character eventually backsliding into a less evolved place. Then again, what could be more human than that?
Acevedo’s collection is also adept at highlighting the occasional impossibility of escaping codependent and otherwise harmful relationships without external intervention or even drastic action. “Where You End and I Begin” follows a university student in search of excitement in New York City who becomes embedded in situations, lives, and relationships without exercising much in the way of control, as can often happen when we are young. Unable to simply tell her boyfriend she no longer wants to be with him, she stays out as often and as late as possible, leaves her journal entries about the ending of a relationship out around the apartment, hoping they will be read, and eventually sleeps with someone else, forcing him to ask her to leave. From there, she moves into an apartment with a constant flow of people and drugs, the patriarch of which is Patrick, a man who personifies the impermanence of the city by welcoming all non-sober, unmoored persons into his life without expectation or attachment, a courtesy that must go both ways. Though the narrator admits, to herself as much as to the reader, that her university program, Patrick, and the city itself don’t ultimately suit her, she allows herself to be swept away in a current of hedonism until the only way she can think to escape is to be hospitalized in the wake of a suicide attempt. Only from within the confines of another institution that has taken control of her body from Patrick is she finally able to sever their connection. This youthful and distinctly feminine lack of control even over our own bodies can be found throughout Unsaid Things. Sometimes—as in “Where You End…”—this spells doom, while other times it is confronted head-on, leading to personal growth or, at the very least, a self seen more clearly. Even when the women in these stories use their bodies to somehow gain control of their lives, it’s in reaction to an earlier loss of agency. While heartbreaking, this too is relatable and speaks again to the emotional domino effect caused by relationships experienced in our formative years.
Unsaid Things teems with the shoulds hurled at us by the world at large regarding female bodies, how to handle trauma, and especially the proper reasons for loving, approaching each with honesty and compassion. Read it to feel seen.
What Love Looks Like: Joanna Acevedo's Unsaid Things