A short story I recently read

‘Guts’ by Kimberly King Parsons

Read it here in about 50 minutes.

Thinking about juxtaposed characters…

Our narrator, Sheila, is an imperfect woman, a flawed character. She struggles with her body, self-esteem, and life choices. She’s embarrassed, but can’t stop eating junk food, secretly drinks alcohol and smokes pot, and is insecure about her relationship with Tim, a medical student. Through Tim, she has begun to see the world in a different light – literally – now noticing that strangers are ‘radiant, gleaming’ and ‘incandescent’ with illness. These descriptions could be metaphors, or literal if we read the story as magical realism, but I think instead they indicate the narrator’s obsession with the body and its perceived faults, combined with her overactive imagination. For example, the description of the ‘tiny black tunnel spiraling through one guy, his brain tissue eaten away and peppery in places’ suggests fantasy rather than medical reality.

In contrast, Tim is calm, confident, and self-assured; he stands and speaks with authority, commanding respect; he only thinks of the illnesses of strangers when he’s holding their charts at the hospital. Tim sees the world in a completely different way to Sheila, for example, while she sees the old woman in the movie theatre as ‘every frail grandma, every elderly aunt I never visit, every maternal figure who has loved me’, he sees an annoying woman who got too close and smudged his glasses; Tim sees a dead patient as a learning experience, and lots of paperwork, while Sheila sees a sad event; Sheila sees her body as embarrassing, while Tim sees parts with names and functions, and an object of pleasure.

Sheila has been ridiculed for her size, by men – the young man at the store, the man who shouted ‘Timber!’ when she fell over – yet, while she sees herself as ‘lumpy’, and is ashamed of being wider and taller than Tim, he sees her as a woman who should be proud of herself: ‘“Stop it,” he scolds. “Don’t put yourself down.”’; ‘“Don’t shrink yourself,” he says, serious. “Take up your space.”’ Space is one of the themes in the story – the way Shelia and Tim take up space in different ways; how Tim needs space more than Sheila; that too much space makes Sheila feel alone…

As the story progresses, Sheila’s life begins to spiral – she tries to diagnose strangers, using information gleaned from Tim, perhaps wanting to be like him; her self-destructive drive increases – her argumentative nature, her drinking, her belligerent behaviour. And while Tim is tired – due to studying, long shifts at the hospital, and having to calm down Shelia’s jealousy so often – he bears it all. There is no defined character arc for Shelia – no big change by the end of the story – just the potential, the feeling that she might one day accept herself as Tim accepts her, even though it doesn’t seem that the relationship will last much longer because they’re too different. Yet, despite their differences, they do come together for brief, beautiful moments, which is what life is all about, really.

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