Interview with Celia Lisset Alvarez, Author of "Mesh and Lace"by Fringe Magazine • 04.07.2010
Celia Lisset Alvarez, poet, fiction writer, and author of the short story Mesh and Lace in our Working Issue, was kind enough to answer a few of our questions over email. We talked diners, family, and the 80s.
Fringe: The setting, while vivid and well described, doesn’t seem to be particular to any city, state, or region. Is there a particular place you had in mind when writing this story?
Alvarez: I did go to a Catholic school here in Miami, but there’s no diner nearby. I think I wanted the story to feel claustrophobic, as if the only places that existed were the diner and—briefly—Isabel and Tony’s home. I haven’t traveled much outside of Florida, but, no matter where I’ve been, stepping into certain places—like Denny’s or Waffle House—is the same anywhere, whether you’re in trendy South Beach, sleepy Sarasota, or historic St. Augustine. Some people find this comforting, but it seems to me very strange, like bubbles in the environment where no particularities can penetrate. At the same time, I didn’t want the diner to be a recognizable one. Despite Isabel’s chafing against the “waitress of Oz” theme, she is part of a supportive group at work, something that I felt might be different in a national chain, where there’s more of a corporate feel. Sarah, Cary, and Isabel care for and help each other. This is something I’ve also observed everywhere, but especially in poorer sections of the city—Miami, specifically: the huge role your “work family” plays in your life. In this I might have been thinking of a local salon. The stylists are all women. They pick each other’s kids up from school, do each other’s groceries, all sorts of things. They just happen to work together, but they function as a family—better, even.
I also purposely refrained from explicitly setting the story in Miami because I didn’t want Isabel’s problems to seem specific to immigrants. There is such an enormous population of immigrants in Miami, and so many of them doing blue-collar work, that it would have only seemed natural, especially given my own background as a Cuban immigrant, to make Isabel explicitly Cuban or Hispanic. But that is a different story, and one I’ve told elsewhere. I have a very similar story, in fact, called “How to Survive Your First Year in Miami.” The protagonist is a recent Cuban arrival who works at a supermarket. In that story, however, the city is almost a character; her disorientation at the new culture overwhelms even the stress at work. In “Mesh and Lace” I wanted to concentrate on a smaller, more personal theme, even if one’s home always seeps into one’s stories somehow.
Fringe: Despite the obvious strain on Tony and Isabel’s relationship, it’s clear that they still very much care for each other, beautifully shown through these simple, yet very intimate moments. Yet, the reader never gets to see them together very much. What role does their relationship play in this story?
Alvarez: I really wanted to show a relationship that worked. Given the prom-pregnancy plot, there is a tendency to think that such relationships are doomed. I have met many people, however, who married young and made it, and I wanted Isabel and Tony’s relationship to be at the center of this otherwise bleak existence. Despite their youth, they have managed to do what needed doing. However, to portray them as madly in love would be foolish. On a practical level, they don’t really have much time to be together because of work. But also Isabel has not really come to terms with her life in the beginning of the story, so although she feels secure at home and in her relationship, it’s not the complete ease of someone who is not wondering what might have been. And although Tony was less my focus than Isabel, I felt he needed to go out a little while after work instead of spending time with his wife, not because he resents her or their family, but just to get away from his duties for a moment. I didn’t want their relationship, in other words, to seem like a mistake, or the result of a mistake. They might not have been very smart on that prom night, but that makes them neither stupid nor bad people—just human. I like the idea that they stood by one another even long after the initial crisis, and also that they were taken in by Tony’s parents at first. It’s a small detail, but one I feel encapsulates something I really believe, the primacy of family and how that loving support has the ability to transcend all difficulties when it is strong. In many ways, that is the message of the story.