“Pure” is a pretty strange name, but I did know a Pure in high school. Kids called her that because of the religious medal her mother made her wear, an elfin moon hanging above her breasts. On one side was the Virgin, and on the other Purity, written in script on a billowy cloud, the dot above the i replaced by a soaring dove. Pure asked her father why she had to wear it, and he replied, “We wear many chains around our necks.” She didn’t mind the name so much—she hated her real one, Bridget—but she begged to take the medal off. That would invite corruption, said her mother. She made Pure wear it even while she slept.

Before I met Pure, I’d already had two girlfriends. But in junior high we never did more than kiss. When I thought of high school, I felt faint. My older brother, Tucker, told me there’d be more girls than I’d ever seen, and that some would do absolutely everything.

Jonathan Penner

Jonathan Penner is the author of Going Blind and Natural Order (novels), Private Parties and This Is My Voice (story collections), and The Intelligent Traveler’s Guide to Chiribosco (a comic novella). His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, and many other magazines. He is 74 years old.

Patrick Ryan on “Amplexus”

Have you ever wanted something to happen so badly, you could barely sit still? Of course. And when that thing finally does happen, is it ever exactly like you imagined it would be? Of course not. That’s why we have ice cream, Magic 8 Balls, and reality television (none of which appear in our new issue, Jonathan Penner’s “Amplexus”).

The disparity between what we want and what we get is at the heart of every short story since—well, since the beginning of short stories as we know them. Christopher (our hero) wants to be with a girl named Pure (our heroine). Pure, maybe, wants to be with Christopher. But guess what? There are hurdles. And when there aren’t hurdles, there are answered prayers—and answered prayers, as we all know, often leave us with less than a smile on our faces.

Why, you might ask, am I (the editor) handing you (the reader) what seems like a spoiler slapped across a warning label? Trust me, I’m not. There’s something else at work in this hormone-charged and reflective tale, and it has to do with how our memories are fused to our emotions. Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s memory, and what’s going to matter the day after tomorrow is how you feel about it.

I’m delighted to be introducing “Amplexus” to you. Get ready to dive in to a story that’s going to feel achingly familiar. Get ready to learn what “amplexus” means. And get ready to comprehend a little something about how frogs make whoopee.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JP: The plot element that originally intrigued me—that started me writing, and provided the climax in draft after draft—has vanished from the published story. It now seems too uninteresting even to mention, but that’s because so many more interesting things grew up around it. I think a first draft often turns out to be like the scaffolding that masons stand on to assemble a building—after the building is done, the scaffolding comes down. All the first draft does is give you a place to stand while you’re doing the real work.
PR: Is Christopher—the story’s main character—you?
JP: No, but we’re deeply connected. When I’m trying to understand him, I begin by putting myself in his place and trying to understand myself. Then I make allowances for the differences between us, which are enormous. Most of the time, this system operates without my even being aware of it. It was easy for me to convey Christopher’s interest in basketball, Ping-Pong, books, and animals, because those are interests he shares with me. But with regard to the central relationship, no, I never met anyone like Pure.
PR: At the end, Christopher projects us forward into his future. Was this always the way you wanted to end the story?
JP: Yes, as a way to draw richer significance from his experience. The future can be an echo chamber where events of the past resonate, a wall on which events cast a shadow larger than themselves. I always imagined Christopher looking back on this turbulent passage through first love. But ending the story at the time of his impending marriage to somebody else—that idea came to me only when I was writing the last draft. I couldn’t leave the final perspective to the heartbroken Christopher. The story had to understand more than he did after he lost Pure. His perspective from years later shows the meaning of events as very different from what he felt back then, more complex, and I hope more interesting.
PR: What are you working on now?
JP: Some stories that I hope to publish in a new collection. Also, a book on the art of fiction that I hope will be useful to other writers.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JP: It’s how to avoid sentimentality, and it comes from Robert Penn Warren in his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry.” He uses the example of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Romeo proclaims his love for Juliet—its purity, its immensity, its eternality—to a degree that Mercutio, his cynical buddy, finds preposterous. Mercutio’s response is to make dirty jokes. Thus the play itself rebuts Romeo’s wild claims. The reader can still find Romeo foolish, but he can’t find Shakespeare foolish. As readers, we all have Mercutio inside us, ready to make an impolite sound when we come across extreme claims of emotion. So writers should disarm the reader’s criticism before it’s even made—by making it themselves. As Warren puts it, “Every poem must come to terms with Mercutio.” So must stories. In “Amplexus,” I work hard to let the reader know that, when it comes to Christopher’s love for Pure, I’m not saying it’s pure or immense or eternal, regardless of what Christopher himself may have thought at the time. One way I do that is through the character of Tucker—my own Mercutio.