by Julia Tagliere
When 18th-century dramatist Christopher Bullock first noted, “‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes,” he omitted a crucial third certainty, Desire, an omission award-winning author Tara Isabel Zambrano does not repeat in her debut short -story collection, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, due out this September from Okay Donkey Press.
As to be expected, given the title, desire runs like a molten vein through this collection of fifty stories, many of which previously appeared in publications such as Barrelhouse, Pithead Chapel, Tin House, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. In the opening story, “Alligators,” as well as in many that follow, it is physical desire: “She caresses the fabric of my kurta, smells it and lifts it. Prickles of dry skin grow wet. Her gaze cleaves me open. She unbuttons my jeans, pushes her fingers down, the cold surfaces of her rings maneuver inside my body, one by one…we are a tangle of tongues.”
In the exquisite space fantasy, “Lunar Love,” Zambrano imagines a destination wedding like no other, a moment in time where desire is everything and for a little while, the rest of the universe disappears:
Later that afternoon, at my place, our skins stitched together, my lips on your left breast. Your face glowing as if lit with a kilowatt bulb. My slick fingers dug between your legs, then a pink explosion, a small wet moon glistening on the sheet, quickly disappearing. Afterwards, the dim light flickering on our toes like Morse code, a hint of love. A room of lavender, yellow, aching red.
Yes, Zambrano writes physical desire quite well, her scintillating language engaging all of the reader’s senses: the feel of skin against skin, the rosy glow of a lover’s face, the heady scent of lavender—even the moment of climax, the author makes flamboyantly audible.
But we are more than just our physical desires, of course. We experience, too, the desire for belonging, the desire for a lost parent, even, perhaps, the desire to become parents ourselves, and Zambrano writes those equally well.
In “Wherever, Whenever,” for example, Zambrano, who moved to the United States from India herself two decades ago, explores the conflicting desires of immigrants’ children who are torn between honoring the cherished traditions of their beloved parents and their deep yearning to find belonging among their classmates:
I don’t feel I belong here, not in the way Ma and Baba talk about their village in India…I don’t think I belong where they come from. I am only familiar with a few alphabets of Hindi, garam masala and turmeric, differentiation between a few Hindu castes based on their last names. Tania and I are at the border: our citizenship is a string of digits in our passport, our ethnicity a questionnaire our parents wish we knew the answers to. We can look on either side and not find a home.
In “Piecing,” the unrequited desire to bear a child holds a power so awesome the narrator begins to piece him together in her dreams, to a shockingly visceral outcome: “I dream my baby is born in pieces, head, torso, limbs—all separate. I stitch him with a black thread so I can see the seams…Once while changing him, I accidentally pull the string, and he comes undone.” Each month she does not conceive feels like another death: “Cells building up on top of each other—a circus tent, taut, blistering. A few weeks later it collapses as if the stakes are pulled from the ground.”
Death, of course, stalks these pages, too, claiming not just dream children, but also parents and spouses. In “We’re Waiting to Hear Our Names,” Death comes like an eternal dream to a couple whose whole life together Zambrano flashes by the reader in one brilliantly compressed blur, like one of those awful commercials about growing old together—awful because that is precisely how life and time operate:
One moment, “We’re kissing in the back seat of his ’86 Chevy,” the next “We’re rocking our twins,” a minute after that, “We’re welcoming our kids and their fiancés,” and then, before we know it, “We’re lying in our graves separated by five years…Sometimes we’re whispering each other’s name, and the dry flowers above us stir…”
The moment of final separation always comes too soon, no matter how long it’s been coming, and to deeply touching effect, as in “New Old,” when a grieving husband actually transforms himself into his dead wife:
One day, he scoops out a tablespoon of [her] ash and mixes it with his tea…A week later, when your father starts wearing your mother’s saris and polishes his toenails pink, you tell yourself his transition is no longer a temporary one…His hands look worn and you wonder if they can book fluffy puris and bouncy gulab jamuns, feel warm against your cheek, any time of the day.
The death of one’s parents features prominently in Zambrano’s stories, which brings its own kind of desire for all they once provided for their children, even if it is only the fleeting memory of a long-ago comfort, as in “Ghosht Korma,” in which one of a trafficked girl’s only small joys is to dream of her mother preparing a dish: “Rubina believes in God. I haven’t decided yet. Sometimes I try to recall the life I once had. And I don’t remember anything except my mother and her hands smeared with spices…”
As thoroughly and beautifully as Zambrano explores Death and its fraternal twin Desire, there are “Other Destinations” here, too, wondrous and strange tales that defy any effort at classification: “Scooped-Out Chest” features a woman who carves her living heart out of her chest with a knife, offers it bourbon, takes it grocery shopping, and asks it for advice about what to do with the gaping hole left behind; “the shrinking circle” has the narrator talking to God, who plays video games with her and massages her feet; in “Girl Loss,” a group of dead girls roam their old neighborhood, smoking, combing each other’s hair, and remembering their lives, but never their heartbreaking deaths.
Tucked in among the other, more familiar narratives, these unexpectedly surreal tales provide a little shift in balance for the collection, but it’s a good shift, an effective literary reminder that Death and Desire often make their entrances at times, and in guises, that are wholly unexpected. What all these destinations share is Zambrano’s vivid language and her alluring voice, making each of these stories an intensely enjoyable read.
Julia Tagliere’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, Birdcoat Quarterly, and various anthologies. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writer’s Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. In 2019, she founded the community literary reading series MoCo Underground, to showcase the work of local writers. She serves as a fiction editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel. Follow her at justscribbling.com.