A Review of Nina Boutsikaris’s I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry
October 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Like most great books, Nina Boutsikaris’s I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych begins with a personal failure, a goal unmet. What starts as a promising romantic reunion between the writer and a childhood friend quickly breaks down into a self-reckoning. A thousand miles from home, the writer is alarmed to find that, for the first time in her life, she is unable to embody the kind of beguiling feminine presence this man expects of her. Try as she might, she finds the endeavor exhausting, even impossible. Her date’s disappointment is potent.
“I had broken the contract,” Boutsikaris writes, “failed to be the promise, the desire, the notion.”
The failure Boutsikaris speaks of is an inevitability in a world that expects so much of women for so little in return. The moment of initial reckoning for the writer begins when she understands this fallacy. The second comes when Boutsikaris realizes how, now that she is aware of these expectations, the injustices will become impossible to ignore. The hug that lasts a beat too long. A glance that becomes something more akin to a stare. Strangers calling out to you in the streets, desperate for your attention—however negative, however fleeting. The implicit question at the center of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry seems to be: When men feel entitled to a woman’s attention, praise, smiles, how can the woman expect those things from herself?
Through all three essayistic sections of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry, Boutsikaris tells the story of a life in which a young girl strives to be the thing men want and need her to be, operating as a machine built for the pleasure of everyone around her. The scenes the writer renders throughout her intimacy triptych will ring with unsettling familiarity for female-identifying readers, for these are the stories we have always told each other in whispers. The kinds of encounters we experience daily on the streets, especially if we are young. Regardless of whether men think we are pretty. Men who want something from us, all the same.
Yesterday in front of the co-op a man rolled a cigarette and scolded me: Didn’t you hear me? I said I like your bike.
I could see how angry he was.
Later, a man asks Boutsikaris for a smile. What woman has not been instructed to smile by a stranger on the street? And who among us has not, at least once, smiled despite our desire to be left alone—perhaps smiled because we desired to be left alone, and knew that to oblige the man with a smile was the quickest means to that end?
You should smile more. You’ll get ugly if you don’t smile more. Smile, sweetheart.
Smile for me. Make me forget.
In the face of these almost daily demands, Boutsikaris is left to grapple with the utter exhaustion of being needed by so many men she will never meet again, and the dueling sense of duty she feels to fill that need. “They all know what I’m up to,” she writes, “the power I can wield, the potion I am keeping from them.” The attention of a beautiful young woman, the thinking goes, is intoxicating. A smile seems like so little, yet can cost so much. In the absence of this attention, Boutsikaris is left wondering what is wrong with her. She writes, “Some days, though, no one needs me to smile or to relinquish their grief, and it’s those days I feel the weight of it the most. What am I to do then?”
As girls, we are trained to see attention from men as good and wanted, until it isn’t. To seek it until the attention goes too far, threatening to turn a Madonna into a Magdalene. Boutsikaris not only explores the contradictions inherent in such expectations, but also the inevitable negative consequences they hold for girls who attempt to meet them.
With strikingly sparse prose, searingly honest reckonings with the self and its internal motivations, and a deftly critical eye on the patriarchal culture we find ourselves entangled in, Boutsikaris’s I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry is a volume the reader is bound to return to again and again long after the final page is turned. It is staggeringly smart, heartbreakingly true, and an absolutely necessary exploration of what it means to identify as an American woman in 2019.
Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric and composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity and the co-editor of its upcoming anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). Find more at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere.