Live music can have a powerful effect. Profound lyrics, a flawless performance, a resonant chord — things like these can touch fans on a deeply personal level. A listener can derive their own meaning from how a song sounds, creating what feels for all the world like an honest-to-goodness bond between creator and consumer. In turn, the musician feeds on the positive reception from the crowd that results from her playing, using that energy to amplify their creative output. It’s a give and take, and it works best when it goes both ways.
But when a creator’s help is forced on a fan, well — let’s talk about that, shall we?
“Probably Definitely” by Heather Morris explores themes like alienation, the solitude and anxiety of everyday life, and the complexities of life after death. Through the interactions between confused fifteen-year-old Tommie Aguilar and beautiful, recently dead rock star Savannah Sullivan, we as the audience get to enjoy a beautiful story that tells of the importance of a human connection — forced upon us or not.
“Well, folks, this is our last song for the night. This is based on a story that you should absolutely read, so hopefully you know it or else this last one won’t make any damn sense. All right? Okay, a-one, and a-two, and a-three, and a-four…”
Tommy is going through a rough period. In general, Tommie doesn’t identify as a boy or a girl, and has no friends to help figure it all out. But more specifically, Savannah Sullivan, the frontwoman for Tommie’s favorite band, has just died in a car crash, and the worst part is Savannah’s ghost is now stuck with Tommie. Savannah must accomplish some important task before she can move on, but she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do.
Tommie finds Savannah’s quippy accompanying presence invasive and even a little annoying. Savannah’s constant questioning as she tries to figure out what she has to do brings up uncomfortable topics of conversation for Tommie, like how Tommie thinks identifying as neither male or female makes it impossible to be hurt. But it’s not all great for Savannah either: “I’m in two thousand, seven hundred and eighty four places right now, and none of them are with my kids.” Both of them are eager to get on with the process, but the weight of the task is wearing on them.
Savannah tries several things — a private concert of all of Tommie’s favorite songs; recommending Tommie make friends with a girl whose name Tommie can’t even remember; and even scaring Tommie’s incorrigible younger brother. But these suggestions don’t work, don’t convince Tommie, or just plain don’t seem like a good idea. The problem amplifies once Savannah starts fading: “I’ve only got two hundred and twelve people left, and then I’ll be gone for good, and I still can’t get to the kids.” However, Savannah has no way to get to where they are.
Tommie recognizes this as an opportunity to help Savannah, and figures that maybe Savannah is the one who needs help, not the other way around. Tommie travels across town to Savannah’s Long Island home, getting the ghostly musician close enough so that she can say her own goodbyes. When she returns, Savannah seems more corporeal and upbeat. On the ride home, she finally disappears.
At the end of the school year, Tommie approaches the girl Savannah had pointed out earlier; the name “Lily” is whispered into Tommie’s ear from somewhere, and the two strike up a conversation about Savannah’s band. As it turns out, they have the same favorite song.
The writing in “Probably Definitely” stands out to me because of the balance it strikes between grim and optimistic. Throughout the story, the tone remains lighthearted in the face of some serious stuff (death, identity, alienation), like when HoHo, Tommie’s younger brother, was the one to tell the news that Savannah Sullivan had died:
“If the universe were kind he would have been playing a stupid prank, but the universe is not kind.”
This line isn’t amusing in a flippant kind of way; the humor comes from its matter-of-factness. The narration in “Probably Definitely” provides information in a way that feels like you’re in on some joke, except the joke is really rather frightening or sad. The “universe is not kind” mentality is kind of a universal truth — at least a commonly believed one — and hearing it from the narrator in such plain terms puts it into truthful perspective.
All of this is for the sake of the characters. The blend of playful tone with the not-so-happy subject matter enhances the characters to make them more endearing. Savannah in particular has the charisma worthy of her rock star status:
“So, anyway, one minute I’m bopping along in my own life, and then the next minute I die, which, let me tell you, I’m not overly thrilled about this development, and then I find out that I have to get messages to all those people like you, and hey presto, I get to be your Jacob Marley.”
Now this line is a bit flippant, but since it comes from a character we’re learning something about her rather than taking it as a fact of life. It’s to the author’s credit that we don’t get too many of these chatty sentences, since they could start to wear on readers. Instead, it shows us Savannah’s frame of mind and bubbly personality, even as a ghost. Also of note is The Christmas Carol reference, used as a cultural touchstone to remind us that, hey, this story is doing something new and funny with the “after-death guide” trope.
If everything were grim all the time, “Probably Definitely” would seem melodramatic. But because the story doesn’t indulge in that, even when things are really complicated for the two characters, it still feels fun.
Aside from the writing, the story’s strengths lie in its themes. They’re pretty big ones, and all have to do with the characters’ relationships with each other and others. Because of the vagueness of the conflict — Savannah doesn’t know what she has to do to move on — we equally want good outcomes for both Tommie and Savannah. We want Tommie to be happier, and we want Savannah to move on to the next life, and both of those are realized through the story’s themes.
Gender identity. Tommie doesn’t identify as a girl or a boy. This makes writing a response about it kind of difficult. It feels awkward, having to keep using Tommie’s name than a pronoun. But that difficulty, that awkwardness, feels appropriate — this kind of stuff is difficult. If anything, it grants readers who don’t have trouble identifying with their gender a fraction of the frustration people may feel who are actually dealing with this. It isn’t the same, not by a long shot, but I think the point is it’s important to not pity them, but accept them as people.
Loneliness. Tommie and Savannah experience two kinds of loneliness in the story that resonate in modern society. Savannah’s is more traditional — she’s a parent, and she is cut off from the ones she loves (okay, yes, by supernatural forces) and she can’t go to them. The closure comes when Savannah gets to see her kids and complete her task at the same time.
For Tommie, it’s a bit more complicated. Tommie has no friends to confide problems to, no one to even hang out and commiserate with. We get the sense of closure when the girl Savannah had pointed out actually turns out to be a pretty good fit for Tommie: “Tommie smiles. Pretending this is easy almost makes it so.” Even though Tommie’s confidence isn’t completely there, it’s a step in the right direction toward what we want Tommie to have.
Helping others. Compared to a novel, a short story doesn’t have a lot of extra room to build out a friendship in a meaningful way, yet just about every part of “Probably Definitely” was constructed to make Tommie and Savannah’s meeting impactful. Weaved throughout the story is the expectation that someone is going to get helped, and by its end we’re pleased to see it’s the person who seems to need help the most who can best provide it to others.
I think it was the act of putting oneself on the line for someone else that was at the core of Tommie and Savannah’s brief friendship. When Tommie is contemplating everything that’s happened over the past few days while Savannah sees her kids, this profound thought rises up:
“It’s always been safer to be nothing, to try to feel nothing. But maybe safe isn’t everything.”
I’m so used to seeing stories with world-shattering stakes, where the fate of the world lies in the hands of a single person; “Probably Definitely” does a stellar job of shrinking the conflict down to the needs of just a few people.
“Probably Definitely” was a standout story from 2015, but I never felt like it was a good fit for any of our monthly topics. Although I was disappointed I didn’t get to share it with you before, I’m happy I held onto it. This month’s focus on fans and the interactions they have with creators is a driving theme in the story, and a good reminder of just how much creators and fans need each other.
I could get all sappy and point out all the ways that even a simple human interaction can make a tremendous difference in a person’s life. Or I could just let the story, in all its simple, masterful beauty, say it so much more elegantly than I ever could.