By Susan Rukeyser
Space Cowboy Books, June 2018
Chapbook, 32 pages, $5.00
Susan Rukeyser’s Swap / Meet is a short but compelling collection of flash fiction featuring a gimlet-eyed view into the lives of nine down-on-their-luck folks. What unites them, and this collection, is their need to get rid of personal belongings fast via Craigslist-style classified ads.
Rukeyser fully inhabits each character in turn, revealing their complex lives in two or three fast-moving pages. Rukeyser’s gift for voice and her knack for the telling detail give these pieces a surprising potency. They range from bittersweet to haunting.
In the opening piece, “1 Table, 2 Chairs: Ugly,” a cuckolded husband describes the fractured relationship through these much-used objects: “They were made without love and no love was made on them, at least not while they stood between me and Rosie. Maybe you’ll have better luck.” He gives potential buyers some advice about furniture — and men: “Maybe just try and take it for what it is. Appreciate what it can offer. Don’t dwell on what it can’t. It’s just a damn table.”
A few selections later, we meet the other heartbroken spouse in “Black and Blue Babydoll Nightie (used).” Here, Rukeyser manages to condense a marriage, a divorce, and an attempt to make sense of it and move on in just the first two short paragraphs.
“I turned 40 and my husband left me for an older woman. He was characteristically thoughtful and apologetic: it wouldn’t be fair to me if he stayed, because he was pretty sure Rosie was his soul mate. It was nothing against me.
“Hell yes, I bought myself slutty lingerie after that. I hoped life had something left for me, too.”
But the heart of the story comes later, when the narrator becomes philosophical. That’s certainly one of the benefits of being 40.
“40 isn’t old but it’s not exactly young. You start to get a sense of how quickly time passes. How little is left, comparatively. You have some regrets, by 40 … But, wearing this nightie with its aggressive bra top, I forgot my regrets. I remembered myself. With those 5 kind strangers, I felt like the best, bustiest, most bodacious beauty queen they had ever had the good fortune to encounter. I heard my own laugh for the first time in forever. For an hour or three they were mine. Then I sent them away. It was bliss, which makes up for a lot.”
In “Books: Too Many, Read Once,” we meet a man selling his second wife’s collection of bestsellers after her cancer has made him a widower. After a day spent on the phone at their plumbing business, she liked the peace and quiet of reading for an hour. Now he wants that time back.
We also get to know the daughter from his first marriage in “Prom Dress: Teen Girl/Woman. Peach/Pink/Coral (???), Sparkly.” She struggled with her weight in the shadow of her beautiful ex-model mother, who resented that she’d gotten her father’s genes.
Swap / Meet embodies the old saying, attributed to Scottish minister and author Ian Maclaren: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”