Adventures in the Skin Trade


The threat of violence never strays far from desire in Lisa Teasley’s stories of interpersonal horrors. Under her pen the apprehension and dread which accompany human sexual need are rendered as malicious blood kin, murderous kissing cousins. Her characters are an exotic blend of the neurotic and the noirish—tense, hungry, dangerous folk of diverse ethnicities who crave understanding and stimulation but would be better off left alone. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” could be considered the theme song, if not the battle cry, of Glow in the Dark.

In “Baker,” Marty, a hapless white guy who exposes himself to his black lover’s daughter, welcomes a cocked gun at his head. In “Meeting for Breakfast” a woman suspects an erratic male friend of killing someone she had dreamed about strangling, then discovers he may have been lying about the person being dead. In another tale a beautiful woman uses a horse-riding incident to break off with her hypochondriac fiancé when she suspects he is terminally ill.

What saves these setups from potboiler-dom is Teasley’s wickedly laconic prose. She gets to her clinchers obliquely through edgy, emotive dialogue that borders on Too Much Information. Her observations focus on the tactile as much as the psychological.

Mrs. Gaines had the fishbowl in the bedroom now, and she didn’t know why but after staring at the fish swimming around there on her dresser with its flaming fins . . . she started touching herself, and just a bit embarrassed she turned to see if her husbands picture was face down, and then feeling a bit daring she picked up the picture so that it faced her and then she . . . touched herself all over, abandoning more and more of her stipulations and confinements of the mind. This felt quite good as long as it lasted. But then it was over, and she got up and went into the bathroom to throw up.

Teasley not only wants us to get under her characters’ imaginary skins, she wants us to get physical with them too, learn the heft and weight and burden and loathings of their bodies. In “Wanting Girlfriend With the Pink Hair,” Emerald has an imaginary dialogue with her beautiful gay brother, Cy: “My legs are too short really. They are much too short. Why couldn’t I have gotten your legs? Cy. Or only your lips, even. I’d take your spider lashes, and be happy really. . . . You’re all Mom, really, gorgeous Mom with the symmetrical everything and here I am lopsided with these crazy knock knees.”

Though Teasley’s stories take place in New York, California, and Paris, there is something vaguely “West Coast” about her spatial and racial sensibilities—her presentation of so many mobile, spontaneous, restless, couch-aversive, thirtysomething types who seem only tangentially attached to land, tribe, or profession. (The exceptions are her incidental Mexican characters, who occupy the circumscribed oppressed-lower-class ethnic camps other African American writers reserve for their own poor folk in literature.) Teasley’s people give off an air of being wanderers, stragglers, and slackers. Day trips and road trips figure prominently. Unrequited sex and lust send several protagonists into a frenzy of head games, hidden designs, fateful betrayals, rages, and at least one suicide.

As cultural critic Rick Powell once intimated about the romantic combatants in Jean Toomer’s Cane, Teasley’s women seem to have more erotic energy than they know what to do with while her men seem a bit sapped (making them more loopy and likely to lash out). Teasley, pun irresistibly intended, loves to tease out the explosive backlash and karmic retribution sure to follow whenever someone vents their repressed feelings. In the world Teasley’s creations inhabit, knowledge that someone got the fever for the flava can be a bitter if not fearsome thing. The lesbian adventure embarked upon by a road-tripping older and younger woman dumped by the same man in “Nepenthe” comes as no surprise, but the horny buildup is as brittle, anxious, and suspenseful as a Hitchcock scene. The incestuous undercurrent of the brother-sister relationship in “Pink Hair” startles less than the admission that their black mother always referred to their long-lost papa as “your father the trick.”

Like the Me’Shell Ndegeocello of Bitter, Teasley privileges the excavation and display of pent-up feeling, eschewing conventional morality about fidelity to respect the destructive power of envy, jealousy, alienation, and, most of all, unavoidable intimacy. The circumscribed closeness that comes with taking on friends, lovers, and family is the same feeling that could drive some folk to hurt, abandon, maim, or kill. Without embracing cynicism or denying the risks, Teasley lights up the plunge into the abyss that can result from knowing people far too well.

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