Review: Every Kiss a War

Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith
Review by Robyn Ryle
Issue No. 4 – June 2014

Imagine your first kiss became a place. The walls would be built of touches felt somewhere behind your knees. The windows are your lover’s eyes. In the house made from your first love, the building would be rocked with storms – hail and wind and driving rain. You would barely notice because of the sweetness, though. The rooms would smell of whiskey and sugar.

To read Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut collection of short stories, Every Kiss a War, is to take up residence in that place. It is to visit the times in your life when love hurt in the most satisfying way, like the fine, thin line of a scab you can’t stop running your finger over again and again.

In these twenty-seven short stories of varying length, characters bounce hard against one another, propelled by the force of their desires. In “Sometimes We Both Fight In Wars,” the story from which the collection’s title is drawn, a veteran lives on an orange houseboat where his lover asks him to show her how to kill a man. Rory, a young woman with an abortion in her recent past, finds a sympathetic connection in an unlikely place in “Skee Ball, Indiana.” A young widow tries to negotiate a complicated relationship with her dead husband’s best friend in “Whiskey and Ribbons.”

These stories are filled with characters who step out of the pages and onto your living room couch to slouch there with a cigarette or beer bottle in hand. They’re the kind of visitors you both hope and fear will stay. Violet, a character who appears in three stories (“What the Fireworks Are For,” “Hold On, Hold On, and “Cheap Beer and Sparklers”), leaves her husband for unexplained reasons and heads for Florida, where she flirts with the irresistibly-named Roscoe Pie. She is the kind of woman who, having run away from her husband, then calls him to say she wishes she was pregnant with his baby. The strength of Cross-Smith’s writing is that you believe this is possible. You still like Violet as a character and you want to know more. When she writes in Violet’s voice, “I searched the radio for songs about how it ached in the same place whether you were leaving or heading home. How sometimes your body couldn’t tell the difference between not loving someone enough and loving someone too much,” you understand exactly what she means.

Leesa Cross-Smith edits online literary magazine WhiskeyPaper with her husband, and the pieces they select reflect her own fresh aesthetic. She is a native of Louisville and it is this particular landscape that holds these stories together. Hers is not the stereotyped Kentucky of Appalachia and coal mines. It is a startlingly fresh and modern South, filled with Russian women and Liz Phair references, as well as people who are white and brown and shades of color in between. The stories are unique in their mix of cowboy hats and cosmopolitanism.

In one of the longest stories in the collection, “Un Jour Comme Un Autre (A Day Like Any Other),” Sam, a Kentuckian in Paris, marries and has a child with a brown-skinned French woman named Margot. Like many of the women in Cross-Smith’s stories, Margot looms mythic and large, like a modern version of Paul Bunyan or John Henry. In this world, women are legendary for the strength of their desire and the meteoric paths they pursue, sometimes even to their own destruction, as Margot is eventually killed by a lover after she has left her husband and child. At the beginning of the story, Sam says of her, “She is still in her nightgown, the barely beige one with the roses on it. The roses have thorns. He finds he is always staring at the thorns, counting them or reaching out to touch them, his fingers skimming over the slick satin ruffles.” The women in Every Kiss a War are soft and thorny all at the same time.

Cross-Smith’s writing appears effortless, but it is sprinkled with crystalline language that pops in your mouth like a tart berry mixed among the sweet. A character laughs, “coy as white clover.” The thought of kissing someone is, “there snapping back and forth like a clean dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.”

What is it that the characters in these stories are fighting for? What are their wars about? The experience of reading takes you forcefully into the present of their lives; you live with them. Your own needs become great. The sensuous texture of your life comes into high relief. You understand what it is these characters chase after so brutally. A taste of sweetness. A moment of joy. The sensation of skin on skin that tells us we’re alive.

Every Kiss a War
Leesa Cross-Smith

Mojave River Press
216 pages, $16.95

Robyn RyleRobyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in Indiana. She teaches sociology to college students when she’s not writing and has stories in CALYX Journal, Stymie Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, and WhiskeyPaper, among others.  You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.

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