A short story I recently read

The Man on the Stairs’ by Miranda July

Read it here in about 10 minutes.

Thinking about time and characterisation…

I love this story.

In the opening, the narrator wakes to hear someone on the stairs outside her bedroom. We have this repetition and extension of things she can hear and feel, which demonstrates her panic, reflects the way sleep dissolves into concrete reality, and builds tension: tiny sound / human sound; I held my breath / I tried to whisper; I squeezed Kevin’s wrist / I was squeezing air.

Then we have a digression, which pauses the tension. Rather than continuing to focus on this terrifying intruder, the narrator tells us about her character flaws: ‘That is my problem with life, I just rush through it, like I’m being chased’ she says. This must be the fear taking over, we reason; seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes at a moment of danger.

Then, we begin to doubt her: ‘I would forget the danger for whole moments at a time, and almost slip back in to sleep’. How can the man on the stairs be real, if she’s able to fall back to sleep as he advances?

She says she can’t wake her boyfriend, because his voice would signal to the man ‘how vulnerable we were’. Vulnerable; we can read this in two ways – are they vulnerable, or is their relationship?

More character flaws are revealed: ‘There are three main things that make me a drag’ – our narrator is selfish and fake, and feels guilty about it; she’s not happy with her friendship group; she wants to change her life; have a fresh start. What does this mean for her boyfriend?

Things take a disturbing twist. She reveals she had a crush on Kevin when she was twelve, and he was twenty-five. Another reveal: she was his student. Ok, we’re revaluating this narrator now; her relationship, her choices, the power dynamic. We may revaluate why Kevin tells her who he fantasises about; it this just annoying, or controlling?

We have a flashback to the narrator’s first date with Kevin, and how she thought the teenager who cleaned the car windshield was a more appropriate boyfriend for her. Lack of self-esteem, or reality?

Another hint about the relationship, about how different these two people are: ‘My eyes are open too. Kevin’s eyes are shut, he is so far away and he always will be.’

She confronts the man on the stairs, and rather than seeing some nightmare vision, he is ‘an ordinary man’ who breathes out ‘the bitter air that makes women doubt everything’, while she breathes out ‘everything I had destroyed with doubt’. Okay, so this is about the narrator and her relationships, with other people and with herself, not about a real man on the stairs?

Final paragraph. The flashback to the first date continues. She is difficult on their date. Kevin makes jokes, and she refuses to laugh at them; ‘I would rather die than laugh’, she tells us.

‘I didn’t laugh, I did not laugh. But I died; I did die’ she says in the final line. Wow. So, we can read this in lots of different ways: Rather than giving in to Kevin’s silly jokes, she has given in to him in some other way? Has the self-doubt she feels destroyed her? Is this a deeply unhappy woman looking for a way out? Or is the man on the stairs real?

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