The Greeks had four main words for love: eros, agape, philia, and storge. Each word has a different connotation: sexual love, love of a divine figure, love of a friend, and familial love. Our own and sometimes crass English language does not make such distinctions in diction.
In her collection of short stories, The Dark and Other Love Stories, Deborah Willis takes her readers through a heart-wrenching gauntlet of tales demonstrating many types of love. Through candid writing, melodic word choice, and overarching themes to which anyone can relate, Willis reels you into her stories and will not let you go until the last page is turned.
She starts her collection with the title story, “The Dark.” This tale revolves around the philia kind of love, friendship. She takes the reader to a summer camp where two thirteen-year-old girls, Andrea and Jess, are best friends. They form a lightning quick bond, one day deciding to be best friends for the summer, sneaking out after lights out to look at the horses or go skinny dipping in the lake.
One night, the girls meet a duo of older boys; Andrea goes with them while Jess elects to stay behind. After that night, the reader notices a change in the dynamic between the two girls. Jess notes, “[o]-ur friendship didn’t end … The next summer, we were again in the same cabin, but we each made a new best friend. The summer after that, we got boyfriends.” That night with the boys in the row boat brought about a tangible divergence in the girls’ experience and their philia love. This one instance changed the love they felt for each other and made it different, or maybe broke it entirely.
Another story, “Hard Currency,” tells of the plight of a Russian-American writer who makes one last pilgrimage to Moscow to visit his deceased grandmother’s apartment. Now, this man is not quite sympathetic enough to warrant full-fledged pity. He is a successful writer with a Pulitzer Prize in his collection, but he buys a prostitute for his last evening in Moscow.
Putting that aside, the reader feels the depth of love, that storge, he felt for his grandmother. “Can a boy be in love with his grandmother’s words? …Yes, it is possible. A boy can be in love with his grandmother’s stories, with his grandmother herself, in her apartment off Moskovskaya, eight floors up.”
With this line, I stopped short. This highly accomplished, world traveling, semi-sleazy man still craves the peace and security his grandmother’s presence gave him. He craves that precious and fleeting love that grandparents give unconditionally to their grandchildren but expires once that generation is gone. We learn that his grandmother was not perfect – she did immoral things to get through the Stalin era. However, storge is strong enough to wash the unsightly things away and leave a warm feeling behind.
My favorite story Willis creates is also the one I think is the most heartbreaking. “Last One to Leave” tells about Sydney, the strong, independent journalist and how she falls in love with Havryil, a Holocaust survivor. Sydney is a reporter at a local newspaper and Havryil is a man working in the nearby lumber yard who lives alone in a cabin he made himself in the woods. She goes to interview him, they meet, and they fall in love. Don’t worry, it gets better than that.
These two share a special kind of eros that transcends the horrors Havryil saw in the camps. They prove to each other that love between two married people in a quiet corner of the world can be enough. The chapter ends, with this melancholy note: “She’s mostly stopped speaking now. Not because she couldn’t bear it – he’d shown her that loss can be borne – but because there was no one, now, to talk to.” If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it? Does love only exist when you have someone around to hear you say the words?
Willis is able to create characters that closely mirror humans. Too often, writers create characters who are all one thing: either too moral to the point of extreme martyrdom or too wicked to the point of unredeemable evil. But in her stories, we get real characters. These paper and ink people are complex and they feel a myriad of different emotions just like flesh and blood people do. But that means that Willis’ characters can break your heart just the same. Pick up this collection, but be careful with your heart.