Most of the story's narrative takes place in that past, as Jesse remembers his first love. This remembrance reflects the idea that we never live in the present, that we are always obsessively removing ourselves from where we are and placing ourselves in empty nostalgias by which we define our lives. Here, Chiem contemplates identity:
[Jesse] wonders her name for a short while before he snaps out of it, awake from his manic deep thinking, and then Jesse forgets all about it. Refuses to allow names into this motel room, he thinks. No names, please, he thinks, no names ever, pouring new liquor in their glasses and the whiskey purrs an aroma almost burning.Jesse argues with himself about the reason identity is necessary to tolerate existence. His own identity becomes a labyrinth while pouring whiskey into the glasses, consciously choosing to forget who he is, who the unnamed woman is, and to experience something new, something he wants so much to regret but can’t bring himself to.
The concept of identity is further distorted by the scent of the whiskey (the whiskey, too, is new) purring (Chiem puns here on 'pour' and 'purr'). This pseudo-personification removes Jesse further from reality, ending in the pain of "almost burning." Jesse’s relationship with the woman grows increasingly sadomasochistic in nature:
Have you ever done anal? Jesse asks her.And:
Yes she says, sipping the drink he hands to her, unfazed by his question. I love anal. It feels like, like a more, powerful lucid dream because of the added and soft pain. She pauses and says, masochism is still pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, and takes another large sip from her glass and almost hiccups smiling. I like admitting it too.
The thing is.Jesse describes his first love, Wendy, with the unnamed woman. Here Chiem begins to manipulate syntax and punctuation, sometimes ending sentences halfway through. Ken Sparling often does this, as does Noah Cicero (and some other writers I can't remember). The effect is wonderfully disorienting, disrupting the story’s chronology and injecting into it a subtle suspense:
I don’t know how to be good anymore, he says.
The thing is.
I can’t find anyone, he says.
She doesn't know why while listening, she wants her hair pulled by him.
[W]e leave our houses at the same time and eventually she was too tired or fed up of walking ahead of me or for waiting for me to pass her, so one day. She stops. She stops in my favorite spot along the fence with some cool vines and thorns and roses growing from within the ribbons of the twisted steel and she turns around you know? and waits there for me.Chiem leaves the ending vague, hints at but never says whether or not this unnamed woman is in fact the Wendy Jesse knew long ago—an idea often implied. This almost doesn’t seem to matter to Jesse, as he is reluctant (despite his soliloquy detailing his past with her) to remember Wendy on purpose—he's just as reluctant to ask the unnamed woman who she is. Jesse’s only concerns seem to lie within the quiet epiphanies he has while trying to forget:
I don’t know how to be good anymore.This line alone signifies the subjectivity of morality, and how morality is something not so much innate as it is a learned method of preserving hopeful interaction with others. Here, Chiem abandons not only identity but the social structure in which it is utilized.
Sometimes the unnamed woman realizes and acts out Jesse’s epiphanies for him and, through the haze of drug abuse, imagines the beauty in anchoring themselves to the present moment:
Sometimes I can’t do it. He says, I really can’t do it, and she nods and almost hums with him. Her eyelids slowly close as if not to miss a word he’s saying and she leans her head against a small bookshelf near her, never really losing eye contact with Jesse, from her eye- to-eye and black, mascara feathered eyelashes. Unnamed she listens and she imagines his shortcomings, feeling like lava from the cocaine drips. From the roof of her mouth, she tongues her honey.As mentioned earlier, Chiem leaves the ending vague, hinting at but never saying whether this unnamed woman is actually Wendy. The story ends with the unnamed woman urging Jesse to try something new—this "something new" referring to Jesse pretending the unnamed woman actually is Wendy.
Here, Jesse's sadomasochistic desire is inflicted emotionally rather than physically—present physical pain mirroring past emotional pain, a mirror he chooses, for once, to gaze into. This "something new" implies Jesse has never before tried being himself—whatever that means to him.
What If, Wendy is available for free online, published by Pangur Ban Party. Richard Chiem is also the author of Oh No Everything is Wet Now, co-written by Ana C. and forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press. Here is his blog.