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‘Otherness’ Reinforced through Queer Temporality: A Queer Reading of “Drown” and “Quarantine:”

by Sanjna Navani

Temporality is “a mode of implantation through which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts”; in heteronormative society, these forces “are natural to those whom they privilege,” and are the very forces that oppress and “other” queer bodies (Freeman 160). As a people deprived of distinct pasts and futures by way of having no succession or lineage contributions, the queer community does not fit into the narrowly defined margins of hetero-time. Thus, the concept of queer temporality arises to address non-heteronormative and non-linear experiences of time. In Alix Ohlin’s “Quarantine” and Junot Díaz’s “Drown,” characters experience time in a way that is significantly different from the “normal,” heteronormative passing of time. The stories focus on the homoerotic; while not explicitly romantic, the narratives are centred around intimate same-sex relationships and interactions. Through the lens of queer temporality, the “deviant” narrative development is supplemented by the protagonists’ focus on defining the story and themselves through an “other,” which allows for “Drown” and “Quarantine” to be read as queer stories.

Queer theory views asynchrony as a queer phenomenon — connecting “marginalized time schemes […] to subjugated or disavowed erotic experiences” (Freeman 159). Non-normative embodiments and activities are separated from the normative in how and where they occur: queer time refers to “models of temporality” that emerge outside of “temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (Halberstam 6). This develops in “opposition to institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction” according to “other logics of location, movement and identification” (Halberstam 1). Outside of structures defined and reinforced by heteronormativity, queer temporality breaks away from societal notions of “natural progression.” By offering an outlook that can contextualise the radical shifts in relationships, sexuality, and identity, queer temporality is critical for understanding new conceptions of life and queerness. Leaving behind linear conceptualisations of time involves a process of exploration that involves trauma, identification, self-realisation, reinvention, and acceptance — this honours the “potentiality of a life unscripted by conventions,” and offers alternative temporalities that allow people “to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of […] markers of life experience, namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 2). Even if they don’t break with linear time, “Derivation, belatedness, dreaming [and] anticipation are all ways of stretching and bending” it, as they fold and wrinkle the past, present and future (Freeman 163). Queer time, therefore, is a turn away from narrative coherence.

Queerness in “Quarantine” is entrenched in the narrative’s explicit portrayal of intimacy between two women. Aspects of the homoerotic permeate Bridget and Angela’s relationship, and they find themselves connected through the body in a hunger for touch. Bridget’s envy at Angela’s closeness to achieving “normalcy,” is overshadowed by a more primal sexual jealousy due to her unavailability and alliance with a man whom Bridget refuses to name and legitimise. No stranger to sex with women, Bridget constantly focuses not on Angela’s demeanour, but on her physicality, with a gaze that is both intimate and familiar. Bridget’s eyes brush past the “blond braid nestled against [Angela’s] neck” and the pale flesh of her thigh that “blushed dark pink” when touched (Ohlin). Her memories are tinged with the bodily erotic, too: she thinks of when they showered together, and when they swam naked in the sea. Later, at Angela’s wedding, their first one-on-one interaction after many years of separation, is physical. Angela embraces Bridget from behind and familiarly addresses her using her childhood nickname. Bridget also squeezes Angela’s hand, watches her dance, and focuses on her “fresh faced” beauty. Her wedding dress is described as “severe” with “no frills or lace.” The spectacle of the wedding is not romanticised, and through that, the wedding union itself becomes severe, in stark contrast to the earlier relationship shared by the two women.

The most explicit scene of homoeroticism is when they both wind up in Angela’s hotel room in Ottawa. They “lay down on the bed,” Bridget’s head on Angela’s lap. Intertwined, they fall asleep “body to body” in “an embrace that was not about sex but not not about it [either]” (Ohlin). In this “middle distance” is an urge to touch — in which high emotional expression takes place through the physical. Their sleeping together not only alludes to sex, but is also an act of connectedness and vulnerability. It is an echo to their past in Barcelona as much as it is an attempt to find a meaningful connection in their present states. When Bridget visits Angela at her cottage, she stands outside, “Allowing herself to be seen,” basking in Angela’s gaze. Even when confronted with the possibility of contracting a contagious disease, Bridget “[doesn’t] care” and prioritises the bodily time spent with Angela over her own personal bodily concerns. Angela’s favourite colour, “bone,” is an ode to how Bridget views her as an “other,” geometric body. The stress on physicality and erotic gaze is a definitive attempt at “othering” the relationship between two women by separating it from platonic, same-sex friendship.

“Quarantine” explores the impact of changing forms of communication on relationships. Many of the interactions between Bridget and Angela take place through letters, online posts, and other technological interactions. They make use of an alternative, non-physical space to connect with each other and to explore a relationship viewed by society as “other.” Purposeless after the death of her father, Bridget turns to Angela and writes her “the kind of letter you probably shouldn’t send at all” (Ohlin). Angela replies with kind words. This solitary letter is enough to bridge the gap between their lives, as “a revision of their history”: Bridget turns back to earlier actions and replicates them in an effort to preserve authenticity and maintain intimacy. They drop out of each others’ lives and Bridget moves on to focus on herself, but the “[stability] and [goodness]” of heteronormative life as a suburban, working mother proves tiring, evidenced by her complaints of “burning out.” Once again, Bridget turns to an “other” form of correspondence to connect to Angela — she spends hours in voyeuristic surveillance of her online activity. Angela herself seeks the “other” in her “alternative” health and spiritual practices. Bridget takes a step back from the “other” space of the internet to tend to her heteronormative family, and when she returns to “[check] back in,” Angela is no longer occupying the space. They resort to some communication through handwritten letters, once again turning to the past, but that fizzles out due to there being “no habitual rhythm.” The identity and relationship they carve out in this “virtual space” is real because it is meaningful to the women.

“Queer space” is precisely this “place-making [practice]” Bridget and Angela engage in (Halberstam 6). The fact that time intersects with space only furthers the queer reading of the narrative. Bridget’s and Angela’s search for “alternative” modes of engagement is intertwined with ideas of suburban, heteronormative life: Angela’s decision to marry her boyfriend meets Bridget’s discomfort and indignation. By doing so, she transgresses the unsaid rule Bridget expected her to follow — to maintain the stasis of transience and uncertainty. By permanently committing to her boyfriend, Angela takes the first step in breaking away from their mode of living an unconventional way of life that prioritises nomadism and temporariness. By wanting to assimilate with conventional modes, especially through a heteronormative marital alliance, Angela attempts to align herself with the “normal” timeline. Bridget, too, takes a normative approach to her life, which is disrupted by Angela’s distressed phone call to Bridget, apologising for omitting her from her bridal party. In that moment, Angela is a faded memory from a time in Bridget’s life that is pointedly removed from her present as an engaged, corporate professional. Bridget’s “adult[ness]” stands in stark contrast to Angela’s “child[like] manipulation” (Ohlin).

“Quarantine” is continuous and largely chronological; yet, within the span of a short story, we experience decades of actual time. The jumps across time, and the flashbacks to earlier correspondences or moments, come across as disconnected and distorted. Bridget chronicles her life from her twenties in Barcelona, to her late forties in Ottawa. These temporal flashes are spaces of narrative detail and intricacy, and are almost solely centred around interactions between Bridget and Angela. Particularly, one feminine relationship becomes the focus of Bridget’s autobiographical narrative, and its dynamics cover and define a huge expanse of time. This relationship is far removed from the standard, life-defining ones; it is not between a husband and a wife, nor is it between a parent and child. Instead, an “alternative,” non-platonic relationship between two women displaces the standard passing of time through a real, intimate connection which replaces long, temporal cohabitation. Narrative time skips past Bridget’s marriage, the birth of her children, and her life’s accomplishments, only to slow down when Angela resurfaces in her life, in some form or another. Narrative detail emerges when the women are at the centre, interacting physically and the story itself ends when their relationship is severed. Their severance comes with Bridget’s realisation that the active years of her life have passed her by. With her children leaving for college and her husband more involved with work, she “would soon be stripped back to herself” (Ohlin). On letting go of their relationship, and the potential for living a ‘queer’ or alternative life, Bridget is only left with an empty palm, and an uncertain view of her future. In contrast, Angela’s life is not interwoven with hetero-structures. Her reclusive habitation is “away” from “the city” and “the suburbs;” it is away from structures rooted in modernity, the future, and heteronormative timelines (Ohlin). She lives away from her family, failing to fulfil her ‘duty’ as a mother and wife. While they subscribe to the typical time frames of family and heterosexual marriage, both Angela and Bridget remain unsatisfied and continue to turn to each other to live out their alternativity. Bridget “impulsively” tries to reconcile both parts of her life—her heteronormative family and her queer desire—by inviting Angela to live with her (Ohlin). More precisely, she asks her to “come home with [her]” implying that her home is, and always has been, with Bridget (Ohlin). Their ‘friendship’ becomes an acceptable way for them to engage in their queerness; however, by distilling their queer desire, they normalise it per heteronormative notions. The dissonant conflict between ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ saturates not only the story but also their relationship and the story’s narrative progression itself.

In “Drown,” Beto and Yunior’s relationship is portrayed solely through Yunior’s narrative—Beto appears as a phantom, abstract figure created by Yunior. Yunior relates moments in their friendship to the spaces he occupies. That he associates every place in his community with an intimate memory shared with Beto speaks to how prevalent Beto’s presence is in all aspects of his life, and the extent to which he occupies Yunior’s mind. This affinity is reinforced by a poignant scene in which Beto and Yunior hide “under a Jeep Cherokee” after shoplifting (Díaz). When security finds them “too scared to take [the bus],” they squeeze each others’ hands, “the bones in [their] fingers pressing together” (Díaz). They hold hands in a moment of silent acknowledgement as they realise that they only have each other to rely on. In the present, Yunior muses that “[little] has changed,” oblivious to the searing space in his life once occupied by his best friend (Díaz). When Yunior learns that Beto is back, he “[swings] through the neighbourhood to see” him, knowing that letting go of this opportunity means their “two years [of silence] will become three” (Díaz). Despite being unsure about whether Yunior wants to reconnect with Beto, he actively tries to seek Beto out by passing by his house and visiting the pool. This is an example of the dialectical attitude that defines Yunior’s approach to Beto—one that is hesitant and contradictory, as Yunior shies away from confronting their shared and unresolved past.

While caught between the past and the present, Yunior is also caught between the binary of heteronormativity and homonormativity. His voluntary submersion in the pool and drowning at Beto’s hands symbolise the helpless situation he finds himself in: he is burdened by a decision that he has not chosen. He is also overwhelmed by Beto, both physically and mentally, as a force he cannot overcome or process. Related to this is Yunior’s self-drowning due to repression: by failing to recognise and legitimise his same-sex encounters with Beto, he steals away from himself a space for exploration and self-identification. In both instances, by submerging himself underwater, he ties his emotional drowning to a physical one, seeking relief in a few, brief moments of cognitive consonance.

As “raging” teenagers, Beto and Yunior both shared a sense of deep dissatisfaction with where they were from; but while Beto “was delirious” at the thought of leaving for college, Yunior “wasn’t like him” and had “no promises elsewhere” (Díaz). Beto has access to ‘other’ opportunities and spaces, while Yunior is confined to a mode of living anchored in the past that he can seemingly never outgrow or leave behind. Beto’s life is an alternative negotiation of the American Dream; instead of delving into dealing drugs and facing a stagnant future, Beto leaves behind his community and breaks his past connections in an attempt to better his future through education. Beto goes against the norms of the community he was raised in, paralleling the non-normative nature of his sexuality: he breaks away from the trap of compulsory heterosexuality and manages to succeed. Yunior interprets this success as an act of betrayal that creates a chasm between them. Disloyalty also suffuses Yunior’s parents’ relationship, which parallels that of Beto and Yunior. Yunior’s mother requests Yunior to “be more like [her] and [his] father” and give Beto a second chance, because even though she “was angry at him” they can now “talk to each other” (Díaz). This comparison divulges the similarities between the two relationships—namely, that one party has been left behind to ponder the what-ifs. Yunior’s mother yearns for the man who left her; despite knowing that nothing fruitful could come from the relationship, she continues to keep in touch with him. Both relationships stew in betrayal, and longing for times that have passed them by, as Yunior and his mother attempt to recollect and recapture true feeling.

Díaz uses toxic masculinity as a foil for the tentative space of homosexuality in “Drown.” Yunior’s nights out with Alex and Danny are stereotypically masculine—they drink too much, “roar at each other” and create a decidedly raucous, male space (Díaz). When he goes to New Brunswick with “the boys,” they go to clubs, “stare at the college girls,” “drink a lot,” dance, and drunkenly gorge on food once the clubs close (Díaz). Part of their ritual is to shout obscenities at “the fag bar,” or scare its “pato” patrons (Díaz). While Yunior does mentally refer to homosexual men as “patos,” he acts more as a passive bystander when his friends mock them (Díaz). Through his internalised homophobia, he tries to root himself in machismo and the culture of aggressive masculinity, an attempt to preemptively repress any transgressive thoughts. His fixedness as a member of his community, a Latin-American, and a resident of his ghetto, cements him into ‘macho’ straight culture. Juxtaposed against this showy heteronormativity are Yunior’s sexual encounters with Beto. The first encounter occurs when the boys watch a pornographic film together. Beto “[reaches] into [Yunior’s] shorts” and stimulates him (Díaz). Yunior is scarred by the experience, because he is “terrified that [he] would end up abnormal, a fucking pato” (Díaz). His distress at the encounter stems from not wanting to be an ‘other’ body. Moving away from heterosexuality would mean moving into queerness, and that terrifies Yunior.

Later, during their second sexual encounter, Beto offers to stop, but Yunior doesn’t ask him to. Afterwards, Yunior’s peaceful introspection is shattered by shame and fear at the possibility of being caught, so he leaves, not only temporarily in the moment, but also the queer space and identity that he could have possibly explored. Beto’s ‘otherness’ challenges the stasis of heteronormativity and threatens Yunior. They branch out in how they approach assimilation; while Beto assimilates with himself and his true identity, Yunior assimilates with the majority culture, shying away from self-exploration. Beto plays into the queer narrative trope of leaving a place to find self-identity and become oneself. His manipulation of space and time to carve out a future for himself and establish himself as a fixed, ‘other’ presence contrasts Yunior’s blind following of heteronormativity.

In “Drown,” Díaz uses flashes from the past and present to distend and weave narrative time. Yunior constantly switches from the present to a memory, blurring the lines between both. The story makes use of repetition as Yunior visits places from his home to back and reminisces, setting up expectations for the narrative to come full-circle. However, this expectation is nullified; since the author never resolves the relationship between Beto and Yunior, there can be no narrative closure. This lack of closure emphasises the sense of being suspended in time. Yunior is caught between time in a way that prevents him from both moving forward and addressing his past. The narrative delineates this lack of momentum in Yunior’s life—he is restricted to foot since he does not “[have] a car” (Díaz). He walks and uses public transport instead. The lack of a personal, mobile vehicle parallels his immobility. In contrast, Beto and Danny both have cars, which are emblems of how firmly rooted they are in queer time and straight time, respectively. Yunior moves across a lot of geographical space in the story, but it is evident from the narrative that this space is the only space he has access to; within his unrestricted movement, he is entirely restricted. He yearns to leave the city and find some sort of displacement as respite from his immobility, but is ultimately unable to break away from normative timelines and spaces.

Angela and Beto act as foils for Bridget and Yunior, as ‘other’ bodies and lives they wish to subsume within themselves. They consistently meet and part, interacting with their ‘alternative’ lives and identities with each encounter. The protagonists explore the desire to assimilate with and explore the ‘other,’ not only through the sexual but also through the emotional, the bodily, the erotic and the abstract. Queer temporality heightens this association with the other by delineating the departure from chronological time that accompanies queerness. Both “Quarantine” and “Drown” rely on intense flashes of the past to renegotiate and reconstruct it: this reenactment is a way to understand and organise queer identity, and through that, self-identity. The stories explore existence outside of time by digressing from heterosexual, linear timelines. Queer temporality saturates the narrative and structures a reading of the stories through a queer perspective. The portrayals of masculinity and femininity heteronormatively gender the stories: Bridget and Angela both play caring and maternal roles at certain points, while Yunior and Beto are both hyper-aggressive. Their placement both within and without hetero-structures and temporalities elicits the theme of  self-contrast, between their struggles to reconcile their queer identities with the heteronormative ones pushed on them by society. Within 14 heterosexual families and occupations, Bridget and Angela constantly seek something outside of heteronormativity—their closeness with each other is a manifestation of their own ‘otherness.’ Yunior and Beto find their roots in toxic masculinity, which Beto manages to escape through self-identified queerness; self-acceptance dictates whether they are freed or further oppressed by institutional structures. These “alternative methods of alliance” within the same-sex friendships drive a queer interpretation of the texts (Halberstam 1).


Works Cited

Díaz, Junot. “Drown.” The New Yorker, 29 Jan. 1996.

Freeman, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 13 no. 2, 2007, pp.159-176.

Halberstam, Jack. “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005.

Ohlin, Alix. “Quarantine.” The New Yorker, 7 Sept. 2017.

Photo: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1991. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/81074 

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