Excerpted: Play by Jess Taylor

In her new novel Play (Book*hug Press), Jess Taylor reveals a woman grappling with her by turns imaginative and painful childhood, and the loss of a beloved cousin who was right there with her. Read on for an excerpt from this psychologically riveting book.

The cover of Play by Jess Taylor. The word "Play" is written in giant, blocky peach letters over a vintage painting or tapestry of a deer grazing by a pond, with wild trees in the background.


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An excerpt from Play

For a long time I didn’t even let myself think the name “Adrian.” Everything that happened with The Lighted City was only “what happened to me” or “the day everything happened.” I hid all my bad experiences in a chest where they wouldn’t be able to touch me. Any complicated feelings I felt, they went in there too. By keeping them tight away, I could continue to live. That was also something that felt hard for me. Sometimes it still feels hard.

But everything always came out in dreams, especially once I moved to Toronto. And then, in 2016, things got worse, the way they need to before they get better. That was when things started to change. When I started to really look at those things in the chest and wonder if I had any hope of becoming a person who felt at peace.

Dr. Johnson recommended I try writing everything down to see if I can make sense of it all. Selina, she prefers. To see if I can be more honest with writing than I am in our sessions together.

Not it. I have to stop doing that—I need to call things what they were. The Lighted City. Adrian. Everything that happened in 2016, when I was close to finally losing myself. The notebook I pick is black leather. When it arrives at the door, I peel open the cardboard and hold it in my hands. It suits the way I feel about my memories, I suppose. I open it and the spine creaks.

On the first page, I write instructions for myself.

You will talk about 2016.
You will talk about The Lighted City.
You will be brave and truthful.
You will get to the bottom of what happened.

I put a piece of masking tape on the cover and then write on it in black permanent marker: How It Happened. Because I realize that’s what I want to figure out. Not just what happened, although that’s important too. I don’t always feel I can trust my memories. In some places, there are gaps, or things begin to blur and look different. And as I look at the cover, even it blurs and changes: How Could It Have Happened?

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been working so hard for the past nine years, and yet I still end up trying the next thing that promises to make me feel in control of my life. But I want to live, or at least I want to try to want to live, so that’s something, I guess.

In those days, we are a we: Paul and Adrian. Never lonely when we’re together. For as long as I can remember, Adrian has said that we are a team, and I believe him—need to believe him. Around him is the only place I feel like I belong. We know each other inside and out. With other people that feeling is impossible, and we’re each other’s only friends. More than friends, cousins. Adrian tells me that cousins are like super friends because you can lose friends but a cousin is always your cousin.

I come over in the day and he smiles his eight-year-old’s mischievous grin at me, his blue eyes bluer than the sky when it’s freezing cold in January. He is so pale, almost see-through. The skin covering his bony arms looks pristine, but I know why he’s wearing long pants even though it’s so hot we had to be kicked outside by Aunt Dot. Normally, she has to find us out there before we can be called in. Sweat runs down his ankles, along his bare feet. I know what’s underneath his clothes.

I wish I didn’t.

Despite what we know about pain, our days that summer are made of play. We climb a pair of cherry trees that hang close to where Adrian’s field turns to forest. We dig through dirt. We swing branches like swords. We are dragons, cheetahs, koala bears.

Walking through the forest, we find a small broken rock laying against a large one. The big one is half buried in the ground. Adrian pokes at the ground with a stick, dragging it in the dirt beside the big rock, seeing if he can dig it out. I point to where the small rock is cracked in half. “Why’s it like that?” He picks the halves up.

“Maybe an animal dropped it from up high?” Adrian says. He looks up at the sky and his black hair falls back off his sweaty forehead. All that’s up there is the canopy of leaves and needles creating the shade we’ve been desperate for. “Or someone threw it.” He winds up like he’s going to throw the half in his right hand, just to see how far and hard it will go. But then he looks at it and holds up the left. “Look, Paul.” He slots them together and they are whole again.

He gives me one piece and he carries the other.

“This is important,” he says. “You can’t ever lose it.” I nod. “It’s like…what do you call it? A pact. A pact to be together forever.”

“Friends forever.”

“Like this forever!” he says and takes my half back and presses it into his until the rock looks whole again. He gives it to me.

Everything between us is a pact. As the years come and we grow, the pacts have more details, but the core stays: Adrian and I must always be together. Or, looked at in another way: neither Adrian nor I can live without the other.

* * *

A photo of writer Jess Taylor. She is a light skin-toned woman with dark, medium length hair, half pulled into a topknot. She wears red lipstick and a red shirt, and stands among green foliage in golden hour.

Jess Taylor is a Tkaronto (Toronto) writer and poet. She is the author of Pauls, the title story of which won the 2013 Gold Fiction National Magazine Award, and Just Pervs, a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Fiction. Her story “Two Sex Addicts Fall in Love” was longlisted for the 2018 Journey Prize. Play is her debut novel.