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Day 6

W-3 by Bette Howland

Chapter 5 (p. 82–93, through "Cootie would be out")

October 24, 2022 by Lynn Steger Strong

I'm obsessed with the middles of books, and this one is electric in the way it escalates and expands: the first prolonged coming together of two characters within "W-3"—it always feels to me like a love story: Cootie, the large and silent, and Simone the sinewy and loud.

It feels important that Cootie is introduced as a stand-in for a certain type of want that maybe lives in all the inmates. Their desire to refuse embodied; Simone's willingness to care for her a different and more thrilling type of interaction than the ones we've seen so far.

Looking at Cootie, a great mass of flesh squeezed onto the sofa, with its fists in its lap, I realized there was also something in me that wanted not to move, not to answer, not to listen; to drown out the world with the sound of its own cries. Cootie wasn't crying—she didn't need to. But her eyes were savagely red from her inner weeping... Cootie was a physical, visual embodiment of that inner urge. What she was, she was—wholly. She expressed it—totally. She had stores of this unspeakable thing, rich, dark, hibernating reserves of it. All she had to do was sit there in her vivid striped robe and draw on them.

Equally as important, though, is the fact of "W-3" as "way station": this is a story of a sort of loving, awkward, complicated, not wholly explicable, but also: "In twelve days Cootie will be out."

It was no wonder that the emphasis of W-3 was all on appearances—the outer world, the macro scale, the pressures of society. The ward was like a way station, an infirmary, a camp hospital: patients had to be patched up as quickly as possible, and returned to the front.

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