In this story, a discussion of how the political can be made all too personal takes place in the context of a thwarted love affair in the Deep South of the 1960s. Annie, the narrator whom the author invites you to think of as a mirror of herself, is looking back at how an incident has changed her in ways she did not really want to be changed, and how it has failed to change what is perhaps her best characteristic as an author but her worst as a woman in a relationship.
The backdrop of “Laurel” is a time of great political moment: The narrator is a young black radical working to create a new journal on racism and activism in Georgia. People are working for and achieving greater freedom and equality for the disenfranchised, but Annie, though a contributor to this, is still a bored 20- year-old woman who is thrill-seeking and exploring her sexual freedom. The journal’s name is First Rebel: “The title referred, of course, to the black slave that was rebelling all over the South long before the white rebels fought the Civil War.” Annie and Laurel’s relationship in the story will eventually deteriorate into a disagreement with each other about what the black rebel owes the white one.
It is in an instance of boredom that Annie encounters Laurel, a white Californian man, whose family has been pickers in apple orchards and grape vineyards; he has come to work on the journal in hopes of starting his own back home. They are immediately drawn to each other, and this attraction seems to be driven by the exoticism of the other and the great danger and shock value of being sexually involved. Annie, who has much more middle-class polish from her education than Laurel, sees the dirt under his fingernails and figures at first that she has the advantage over him: “That’s it, I thought. I can safely play here. No one brings such dirty nails home to dinner.” Annie feels she can “safely play” because she would never consider a serious (take him home to a family dinner) relationship with a person who has the habits of what she terms a country bumpkin.
But Annie becomes mutually obsessed with Laurel, and in the one week of their relationship the impossibility of having sex with him makes him compelling to the point that she thinks she is in love. Because of the laws of segregation still in effect and their rigorous enforcement, she and Laurel are barred from cheap hotels, their sex-segregated dormitories, and even the woods. Annie romanticizes their unquenched lust. She describes Laurel as a promise of Edenic pleasure, saying that he smells of apples and May wine. His voice “sounded as if two happy but languid children were slowly jumping rope under apple trees in the sun.” They long for each other so—barred from paradise, as it were—that they can hardly eat from choking on their desire. Annie finds this to be “a veritable movie.” When their friends and fellow radicals remind them of how they are endangering themselves, their cause, and others, the couple acknowledge the reality but are numbed by their intoxication. Their story seemed to be a reverse image of a movie very famous for its comment on the place of romance in an unjust world: Casablanca. But in the case of Annie and Laurel, they felt that the wants of two little people amounted to much more than a hill of beans in this world, and their acts of activism mostly became about their right to mutual pleasure.
On what they do not know will be their last night together, Laurel, in a fit of guilt, tells Annie that he has a wife back home. Annie does not particularly care—she is too radicalized to feel guilty or obligated, as her romance with Laurel is just part of her self-exploration. But six months later she finds that Laurel’s wife and family do feel that Annie should feel obligated to Laurel—he has been grievously injured— it is unknown whether he is the victim of bashers or merely fell asleep at the wheel—while delivering copies of First Rebel. Laurel’s family ushers her to his hospital bed, but she does not wake the comatose beauty.
Annie begins to take on a more conventional life after Laurel’s accident: She settles down, marries a lawyer activist, and has a daughter. She becomes less and less the woman Laurel loved. But Laurel, after two years severely disabled, roars back into Annie’s life, like Freud’s return of the repressed, and demands that they resume their relationship where it left off. Apparently, Laurel’s mind has frozen itself in the delirium of that one week he shared with Annie. Annie does her best to dissuade him, but he will not give up, and as he deteriorates with each rebuff, his desire for her turns to a menacing resentment.
Laurel sees himself as entitled to Annie’s devotion because of his injuries, he writes: “I hope you know how I lost part of my brain working for your people in the South.” He says of her marrying a Jew: “I guess you have a taste for the exotic though I am not exotic. I am a cripple now with part of my brain in somebody’s wastepaper basket.” Laurel goes to see her and her blackness as his salvation: “I dream of your body so warm and brown, whereas mine is white and cold to me now. . . . I want you here. We can be happy and black and beautiful and crippled and missing part of my brain together.” Laurel wants to own Annie’s body because he has lost part of his brain; he has a taste for the exotic and does not see that to Annie he was exotic; and he wants her to join him in his obsession—crippled and missing a part of his brain forever.
Annie wonders whether Laurel’s entrapment in his lustful delirium and defiance reflects a way in which she is not as changed by time as she would like to think. She has viewed herself as the first rebel, as if rebellion in itself were her freedom. But Laurel becomes the second rebel, the white man who was fighting still to own a person, to be redeemed by his brain-distorting lust and sense of entitlement to save himself through a black woman. Over a century after the Civil War, what does a black radical owe a white liberal who is damaged by his joining the fight for her freedom? Apparently, Laurel thinks she owes him the very self she has fought to free.
But Annie’s freedom haunts her—she feels that her will to complete freedom keeps her alienated from everyone, even those with whom she sought to make common cause, such as her now-former husband. Years after their divorce and Laurel’s destruction, Annie seeks for her husband to assuage her fears and her guilt about Laurel by telling her she was right not to go to Laurel, if only for a while, to give him some happiness. She says that she would have gone to Laurel and temporarily left her husband and child not only “because of the pity—[but] for the adventure.”
Her former husband, the voice of rationality, compassion, and commitment, does not tell her that her abandonment of Laurel was right, at least not in a way that Annie can hear, because her doubts and regrets go deeper than what was the right decision: She wonders whether she should have followed her sense of adventure—a great part of her radicalism—even to a destructive turn. She feels that she has lost something of being the first rebel, and in her former husband’s response that her staying with her family and adult life was the reasonable thing to do, she feels a kind of nihilism—what can she do when the passion that drives her ceases to be the right impulse?