MB Caschetta’s recent story collection, Pretend I’m Your Friend (Engine Books; 200 pages), explores what one of its characters calls “terrible love.” In eleven entwined stories, Caschetta examines confusing and often painful friendships, romances, and familial bonds: a set of parents who share a sexual desire for their kids’ babysitter, a dying mother who wishes cancer on her daughters instead of herself, a clairvoyant whose visions the end of her marriage. Just when you think you have wrapped your head around the root of a character’s issues, Caschetta will offer a different perspective in a later story. One problem bleeds into several others. A name mentioned in passing in one tale will attain its emotional weight in a much later piece.
The heart of the collection is the three stories in which Caschetta focuses on the rats’ nest of pain that is the Wojak family. In “Hands of God,” we zoom in on one moment of Alice-James (A.J.) Wojak’s life, as she takes a trip to Florence with her high school friend Helena Frankel, “the most beautiful girl in all of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, place of their birth, and exactly nowhere.” It is 1973, and the girls have saved up for two years for the trip. Two days before their departure, Helena discovers her boyfriend having a threesome with another couple.
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To dull the pain, A.J. and Helena smoke a joint in a tiny restroom, and vow to “fuck guys like crazy” once they land in Italy. A.J. agrees, though Caschetta makes it clear her attention is elsewhere; on Helena’s square teeth, her hips, how “her top lip touches and releases the bottom lip as Helena leans in for a hit.” Florence is better than anything they have ever seen in their small town. They stay stoned and keep the promise they made on the plane. Helena runs off to the Duomo with a high school basketball star from Missouri. A.J. meets a Cuban street artist named Pedro, and he takes her to his studio. Before they have sex, A.J. tells Pedro she is a virgin. While they are getting undressed A.J.’s mind flickers to dark places, brief but vivid images of abuse back home. She shakes off the memory, but cries when Pedro says, “You are no virgin, mi amor.” While he sleeps, A.J. steals fifty lira, and a charcoal drawing of a clove of garlic. She meets Helena at Sante Croce, and a scene plays out in the church that leaves the reader feeling optimistic about A.J.’s future. Maybe she can escape her hometown and toxic household for good.
This sense of optimism and affinity for A.J. only lasts until Caschetta returns to the Wojaks several stories later. In “Alice-James’s Cuban Garlic,” we encounter the entire family, as seen from A.J.’s sister Ginny’s perspective. It’s 1997 and A.J. is still living in Waynesboro, now as a surly, unmarried middle-aged woman following in the footsteps of her stubborn mother, Rusty. Daddy has died of liver disease, which is a relief for all of his children, especially his youngest son, Andy. “He was the perfect target, cowering in corners or dropping to the floor, refusing to defend himself. Sometimes Daddy would flop down on the floor too, drunk, carrying on about his own father. He’d pull Andy into his lap, kissing him with sloppy, parted lips—an apology.” Rusty, who was oblivious to her husband’s abuse, tells them, “I’ve never loved anyone or anything as much as your father. Not even my children…” Yet, we learn, Rusty let her husband die slowly, bleeding into his catheter, while the nurses begged her to let them pull the plug.
Andy escaped Waynesboro for college, and his first appearance at home in years comes in the form of an invitation to his commitment ceremony. Perhaps out of resentment or envy for Andy’s open queerness and mobility, A.J. argues the family shouldn’t go, that the Wojak’s “embarrass” Andy. They conclude the person Andy really wants to attend is Bo, Ginny’s fiance. Bo, perhaps the most endearing character in the book, is confined to a bed, dying of brain cancer. He is like the father Andy never had, paying for Andy’s college education. The family secures a school bus, rip out a few rows of seats so that they can fit in a gurney for Bo, and set out for New Jersey. As a wedding gift, Alice-James wraps up the charcoal drawing of garlic she got from Pedro in Florence. She shows it to the family, telling them that in California garlic is called the stinking rose, an apt description of the kind of love depicted in the collection. “The garlic nearly glows; our eyes are swallowed up in veins and delicate buds: the ordinary, magnificent facts of existence. It is plain as anything, extraordinary.” As the bus breaks down in the snow, and Bo’s fever spikes, A.J. and Rusty hitchhike to the wedding. Ginny waits inside the bus with Bo for the ambulance. “Your life went somewhere,” she says to herself.
And in “Marry Me Quickly,” Caschetta returns to the day of A.J.’s commitment ceremony. Told by Andy’s partner, Wilhelm Livingston, we learn that A.J. and Rusty arrive in the middle of the commitment ceremony, and that Rusty trips over the carpet and does a face-plant. Now the four of them sit on a sofa in Andy and Wilhelm’s living room, Rusty with an ice pack pressed to her lip. A.J. starts to complain about how difficult it was to get there, setting Wilhelm off. He presses Andy to tell them why he hasn’t returned home, about what’s been troubling him. Andy refuses. Wilhelm goes into the bathroom and returns with his arms filled with pill bottles. He starts throwing them around the room, their contents spilling out like confetti. He lists off the names of various HIV medications. Flinging them at A.J., he shouts, “You ruined his childhood, you made it so he didn’t know how to protect himself. You’re the one—with your mind games and your… abuse!” All the while, Wilhelm’s family in Germany, we learn, has their own deeds to be ashamed of.
Pretend I’m Your Friend shows how ugly what passes for love can get. Because of this, sometimes Caschetta drains our emotions, often at the expense of the collection’s moments of lightness and humor. Dealing with all her characters’ past pain, anger, and frustration can detract from their fascinating present. Still, what Caschetta presents us with is an abundance of characters whose lives seems all too real—people connected to each other by bonds resembling a knotted ball of string.