This week, Joyland has a new story from poet and fiction writer Joanna C. Valente about gender, sexual intercourse, and sexual violence. Their story, “You’re Gonna Scream When You Die,” opens with a scene that immediately backs up the dire tone of the title. From the outset, the story is direct, raw, and unflinching in its truth-telling:
He asked if he could come on her breasts. They weren’t using a condom and she wasn’t on birth control but K didn’t like using condoms and Baby Girl was too scared he would stop fucking her if she protested.
Valente’s protagonist, only called Baby Girl, has an array of sexual partners who are referred to only by first initials, who seem to drift in and out of her apartment like so many anonymous ghosts. But this isn’t the empowering kind of casual sex, the enjoyment of two bodies in the freedom of sexual expression; this is something harmful, self-destructive, shadowed by a literal specter that haunts the corners of Baby Girl’s room, watching while Baby Girl lets these men use her body, its face featureless or hidden in darkness. This menacing presence carries the weight of omen or memory, or both.
She stands there, letting her arms fall awkwardly to her side until she caresses the side of [L’s] shaved head, and she wants to tell him how ugly he looks when he’s high. She doesn’t say this to him. He pushes her onto the bed, puts his hand up her dress. He tells her how much he loves her pussy, that her pussy is magic, that she is beautiful. Baby Girl doesn’t say anything. The ghost watches, but his face is hidden by a shadow.
Reading Valente’s prose, it is not surprising that they are a poet, too, and also the Managing Editor of witchy feminist online magazine Luna Luna. Their story is filled with images that feel heavy with symbolism—a cherry blossom tree, a screaming pig, the Hanged Man card from a Tarot deck—interwoven with revelatory passages that capture the malignant influence of casual sexism. When Baby Girl carries groceries into her apartment building, past the group of men on the sidewalk, she meekly smiles at their lascivious winks and calls of “mama,” politely refuses their offer of help carrying her groceries, and wonders whether “she prefers being small, taking up less space—or she’s afraid to have needs.” In another scene, she wonders at the phallocentric imbalance of pleasure in male-female intercourse:
L finishes quickly before she’s even felt anything. He asks her if she came, and she says no, but that it doesn’t matter. And she kind of believes it doesn’t, but she wants to know what it feels like to come every time you have sex. Basically, she wants to know what it feels like to be a man.
In the second half of the story, the introduction of Baby Girl’s friend O adds another layer to the story’s interrogation of our culture’s restrictive and destructive binary treatment of gender, displaying some of the myriad ways gender roles can warp, harm, and diminish a person.
They’ve been swiping left for hours, trying to find cute boys, until “Candy Darling” comes on and O starts to cry. He says he wants to be beautiful too, just like Candy was—her long lashes, the slope of her lips, those thighs. Baby Girl did his makeup before, applying rose to his cheeks and silver glitter to his eyes and winging the eyeliner so he felt like Marilyn. He is beautiful, but he isn’t a girl. And he doesn’t want to be a girl exactly either. He wants to be something else, something other than a man. He hates being a man.
“You’re Gonna Scream When You Die” is not a happy read, but it’s an essential and necessary one. In the midst of Valente’s unblinking depictions of trauma and desperation, there exists a rock-bottom kind of strength, a perseverance amidst destruction. Baby Girl and O do not solve any of their problems in these pages, but they keep surviving nonetheless, walking alongside their pain and existing despite it, or perhaps to spite it.
Will this feeling ever stop? [O] asks, then says, I wish I would just stop being a pussy and kill myself already…Although, I shouldn’t say that, pussies are stronger than dicks, you know?
Logo art by Max Winter.