This is my research essay on "We Didn't" by Stewart Dybek which you can find an audio version here. I made minor edits transferring it from MLA to something more consumable.
In “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allen Poe talks about form and structure in terms of poetry. However, it is applicable to all works of literature. In Poe-try, poetry often time uses intentional language up for the reader’s interpretation to convey a certain theme and tone. The length, structure of the stanzas, setting, characters, and connotations of the words are all important. Even long poems are an amalgamation of short poems.
Dybek states most of his stories are “failed poems” and “We Didn’t” is no exception.It’s a response to a poem by Amichai called “We Did It” where it talks about all the ways and places where a couple did it. The first and last paragraphs, in particular, mirror the nature of Amichai’s poem. “We Didn’t” is an in-between kind of story. It both “hides the joint” with the realistic setting, time, characters, and conflict in the story.
“We Didn’t” is from the perspective of an older Perry Katzek looking back on a relationship from his youth. It’s reminiscent of ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ as Perry rides the “Blue Ball Express” trying to get into his girlfriend, Jules’ pants. One night, on the beach, they get the closest they’ve ever been. It feels like the reader is intruding on a moment as they describe the undress, the sandy condom, the pleads, the thrusting that’s not quite in the right place.
All of it is gone the instant the cops show up.Perry and Jules throw their clothes on and join the crowd to see what is going on. The cops fish a young pregnant woman out of the sea like a demented birth of Aphrodite. Her skin has a deathly white pallor and her body is deformed, deflated in some areas, and swollen in others. Her hair is like seaweed.
After the appearance of the dead girl, the couple’s relationship starts to fall apart and they argue all the time. Dybek shifts to a moment where Perry tries to pinpoint the night they broke up. It’s an awkward moment where they are sitting in the car. He's trying to thank her for the good times they had and as he struggles to articulate she interrupts, effectively ending whatever thought he might have expressed. After the "break up", Dybek refocuses back to the night they almost did it. Perry drops her off and all he could think about was how they didn't do it as a tragic intimacy. This particular short story is a coming of age story.
Coming-of-age stories are too short to become a full-fledged coming-of-age story but the reader should, by the end of the story, be able to see a small step in the direction of becoming an adult. In "We Didn't", Perry, as a teenager, sees Jules as little more than flesh.
"We Didn't" is in Chicago, Illinois circa the 1950s. It seems to be in an urban part of Chicago near the beach. "Lover's Lane" has factories around it and they almost do it on Oak Street Beach. Marquette Park is located on the Southwest side of Chicago. Clark Theater helps narrow the timeline. Clark Theater received that name after 1930 and was torn down in 1974. Both the Gold Coast and Oak Street Beach are in North Chicago. The movie “From Here to Eternity” came out in 1953 and “I Love Lucy” reruns started in the 1950s. Both helped narrow down the time. Given that Dybek doesn't explore anywhere else nor is there a mention of other places, the world seems small even though it takes place in the United States.
Since it is during the 1950s, it’s after World War II, and during the baby boomer generation so the theme of intimacy and sex makes perfect sense time-wise. I argue the time and place adds to the theme of tragic intimacy throughout this poetic short story but Dybek is from Chicago which could be a convenient place to write about as an equally likely theory.
For a story with flowery imagery, Perry and Julie are pretty generic. The reader has loads of physical but little personality descriptions of them but they are still plausible. Julie is intelligent--Perry talks about the argument they were having over a female poet who committed suicide. She’s religious-- there are two references to this. One is in the first paragraph when it talks about “a rosary twined the rearview mirror” and the other on page 462 where it mentions she wears “a delicate gold cross”. This could all play into the real issue behind Julie and Perry’s relationship, but more on that in a moment. Perry's defining characteristic is his lust.
As the primary focus of the short story, his lust makes up approximately all of it. His sense of humor is filled with innuendos joking they should have a “menage a trois” with the dead woman and asking if Julie was “in the mood for Dong tonight”. Dong refers to both their favorite Chinese restaurant and the thing they did not do. Perry compares Jules to the dead woman which seems strange. Among other comparisons, her breasts were “saggy” compared to Jules’ “budding” breasts. His descriptions and language are a little off-putting.
However, it is interesting to see how the personal life of Dybek has impacted his work. He grew up Roman Catholic in the 1950s in Chicago, Illinois and his father was a Polish immigrant. In an interview, Dybek has stated that he makes his stories by “give[ing] one's imagination the freedom to add invention to experience and memory”. Not all author’s personal lives show up in their stories but these elements are able to add depth to the story and beg the question of whether or not Perry and Jules might be based more in truth than fiction and whether the experience/memory is Dybek’s own or a friend’s.
The conflict in this story is interesting as it is depicted in both an internal and external sense. The external sense exposes the joint with its “use of the unreasonable” via the dead girl. It is not impossible for someone to be doing it and having a dead body found a few feet away but it is unlikely. She--the dead woman--looms like a phantom over Perry and Jules’ relationship. Although the reader never gets Jules’ perspective, they can see Julie’s obsession with her. She asks questions like “But what if we had found her?” and, much like a ghost, speaks about the dead woman--and her child--haunting her dreams. Yet there is also an internal component as well. The 1950's is the era of the ideal housewife and nuclear families.
Julie is religious--probably Catholic given the rosary--and sex before marriage is a big-time sin. After the appearance of the dead woman, Perry mentions how they start to argue all the time. Every time, Perry tries to do it with Julie again, she pulls away or stops him. Her dreams indicate she is in distress, possibly because of trying to please Perry but also her family or religion. She might be “drowning” from the pressure as the Catholic religion places emphasis on repentance. Perhaps that’s the reason why she does not look at the discarded condom. She’s ashamed and guilty she let herself so close to the edge. Given that Perry thinks the cross she wears is “merely a fashion statement” it’s hard to think the relationship will last. She sees this the more they argue.
From the point of view of an older Perry, he talks about how he was so caught up in trying to be her lover he forgot how great of friends they were. The whole story has a theme of tragic intimacy--it feels like the mourning procession in the funeral of Perry’s chance to have a real relationship, one that isn’t just based on flesh and sex but one where they can be stronger and better as individuals. As an older individual reminiscing, Perry can see the damage he caused and what he did to her was not ok.
The ending is open but disappointing. What happens to Perry and Jules afterward is up for the reader to speculate. That being said, "We Didn't" is in a collection of short stories called "I Sailed With Magellan" which, to my understanding, follows Perry throughout his life. The first and last paragraphs are beautiful mirrors of each other. The first paragraph seems oddly hopeful with imagery of autumn leaves and the rambler. You can particularly picture the smell of the “smoked chubs and kielbasa”. Meanwhile, the last paragraph is oddly hopeless especially when it ends with “and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did”. They never did it but they never had a real relationship either.
Dybek, Stuart. "Stuart Dybek." Interview conducted by Sara Scoville. Superstition Review, no. 2, Fall 2008. Superstition Review, superstitionreview.asu.edu/issue2/interviews/stuartdybek. Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.
Dybek, Stuart. "We Didn’t." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. Vol A. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 458-466. Print.
Nickel, Mike, et al. “An Interview with Stuart Dybek.” Chicago Review, vol. 43, no. 1, 1997, pp. 87–101. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25304144. Accessed 21 Feb. 2020.
Krefft, Bryan. "Clark Theater." Cinema Treasures, cinematreasures.org/theaters/4497. Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.
"Stuart Dybek Biography." Chicago Public Library, edited by Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group et al., www.chipublib.org/stuart-dybek-biography/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.