The call comes from a number in Todos Santos, Mexico, and at first I do not register what that means. One student has just left and I have ten minutes to clean, breathe, return emails, collect myself, finish paperwork, use the bathroom, drink three glasses of water, be a different person, and wipe down the yoga ball before my next student arrives. I let the call go to voicemail.
The office for my occupational therapy practice is a trailer parked near the edge of the school’s property line. My job is to take jittery, brickled children and send them back to their classrooms calm. Or take low-tone, gloopy children and send them back full of verve. To accomplish this, I have an office that looks like the props room for a failing circus. I have a slackline, acres of Velcro, and a pillowcase full of stress balls. I have sequin cloth made for petting—one way and the sequins flash silver, the other way purple, and the children never seem to tire of this predictable transformation. They are amazed every time.
My school is not private, I correct people, it is independent—as if it’s just learned how to do its own laundry. It’s mostly white, though you wouldn’t know that from the website, where photos flash in rotation on the homepage. Two Asian American girls pose with their apple dolls. A Black boy angles a magnifying glass over a bug. The one Latina teacher writes an algebraic equation on a smartboard. The school has money, and so they have me.
On Tuesdays, the diffuser gurgles tea tree oil.
“Tuesday smells terrible,” Neve says when she bangs through the trailer door.
She is a loud, rumpled child, constantly tugging at her clothes as if they’re trying to kill her. She wears dresses that look like they were stitched by an embittered grandmother who believed in the reforming possibilities of high necks, lace collars, and lines of tiny buttons, as hard as experience. Neve’s fingernails are long, with black crescents of dirt. Once, I showed her how to scoop the grime out with a toothpick; the sensation made her twitch and writhe, even when she tried to do it herself. She is the kind of white child whose paleness appears bluish from her veins, the kind of girl whose hair has a constant snarl left from sleep. Every day, Neve comes to me like a newborn foal. She walks as if the ground is pudding, her legs nothing but knees.
“I’m in the red,” Neve says, as always.
She points to the top of the Feelings Thermometer on the wall. Is she sure? Not the green, or the yellow, or the orange? Her whole body shakes, thrashing like a severed wire. Red is angry, scared, out of control. Red means the weighted blanket or, in Neve’s case, her beloved tub of dried beans. The tub is deep enough for Neve to submerge her hands up to her wrists. Her favorite thing is to bring her hands out slowly and level, her palms down, carrying a layer of beans on top. Before the beans, I make Neve run through the exercises she likes less, starting with infinity breathing, her finger tracing a lopsided figure eight in the air. Next, I tell her to hold plank position while she lists the classmates she likes from least to best, because that’s more interesting than counting. Her bare legs shake. Her mussed braids sag onto the floor. She likes everyone the best.
Imagine living all day for fifteen minutes with a tub of beans. Neve plunges her hands in and sighs. As she curls and uncurls her fingers, the beans shift and click, though these aren’t the sounds that catch my attention. Hee, hoo, haa. I turn, expecting to see my mother, because those are the precise noises she makes whenever she enters a body of water. Like breathy laughter slowed down. Hee, hoo, haa. I see her so clearly—she walks into the pool in her condo building, her face cast in orange from her visor. The chemical clarity of the air. Her shirt ballooning around her hips.
Hee, hoo, haa. The phone call from Todos Santos. Where my mother lives. And I think, Something has happened. And I think, When was the last time I sanitized these beans?
“Sausage roll?” Hank asks later when I tell him I’m worried.
Hank is the teacher I’m not married to. He is half Chinese and often featured on the website kneeling next to his students in his khakis, which ride up his legs to reveal wacky socks.
“Sausage roll,” I answer.
Nodding, Hank arranges the weighted blanket flat across the scratchy carpet. I stretch myself along the edge, and he rolls me up. I’ve asked Hank to join me before, but he always says no. He’s too fragile for infidelity. Still, it would be nice to be in the roll of blanket with his body, his erection nudging me in the butt, that funny way the penis has of advocating for itself.
“I thought the two of you don’t get along,” Hank says, meaning me and my mother. The layers of blanket between us muffle his voice.
“Is that a reminder?”
“I guess it’s a question.”
Inside the tight roll of blanket I struggle, enjoying the feeling of confinement, the idea that Hank could do whatever he wants to me.
“Silence,” Hank says.
My trapped breath spreads back over my face, a warm, stale fog, a cheesy smell.
“Did you listen to the message?” Hank asks. “If you’re worried, why don’t you call back? I guess I don’t get why you’re worried.”
I tell him about the sounds, the hee-hoo-haa, and, Hank being Hank, he understands that is enough.
At home in our kitchen, Pat doesn’t understand. Pat is the doctor I am married to. Eight months ago, I found his texts with a colleague named Yvette. I imagined her tidy, pink vagina, like a tasteful seashell. If her vulva were a living room, it would have white curtains and neatly stacked piles of Good Housekeeping.
What did I expect, marrying a man? This from my mother on the phone when I told her. We really did talk on the phone sometimes. We did.
Pat wipes the cast iron with its special rag, then anoints the pan with oil. He tells me I cannot know my mother is dead from imagined sounds. “Auditory hallucination,” he says, “is very common. Unbelievably common. Ask me how many times I have patients who come in because they heard the voice of their grandfather or their boss. Ask me.”
I don’t ask him.
Maybe Yvette would like to ask him.
“Please, let’s not bring Yvette into this.”
But she is, always, into this. She is the kind of woman whose hands are like a purse made of veal. She probably didn’t even use lube when she jerked my husband off in the medical supply closet. The worst part? I always begged Pat to play doctor. He never, ever would.
Actually, that isn’t the worst part. Couples counseling has been the worst part. Now that Pat’s working through his own issues with his father, it seems that my opening to leave him has narrowed. Who leaves a man mid-breakthrough? So great that he’s working on himself, my friends say. They can’t stop saying how great it is. But he crashed the goddamn car! He crashed the car and now he gets credit for the repairs.
Pat smears the oil around the cast iron with a paper towel, and I try to not feel jealous of the tenderness he shows to our kitchenware. When the second call comes from the same Todos Santos number, I’m not ready, and I back away from the phone. Pat takes it. His Spanish is better than mine. As he speaks, I dedicate myself to picking bits of food from the sink’s mesh guard. In this moment, I would convert to a religion that required the cleaning of mesh guards. Egg, it looks like, congealed over the mesh in a gummy paste. I scrape at it with steel wool.
“Hey.” Pat’s hand rests between my shoulder blades. “Hey, hey.” I scrape harder, strands of the steel wool unraveling. “Look,” Pat says. “Something has happened.”
I drew a cartoon once of a steel-wool ranch where shiny sheep looked sadly at regular sheep. Can’t remember what was supposed to be funny about it. No, Pat doesn’t know where that cartoon might be now. Nor does he think I missed an opportunity to have a career as an illustrator.
Don’t I have anything to say?
Only one thing.
“Told you so.”
In the morning I find Pat on step seven or eight of the process he believes is the only correct and civilized way to make coffee. Much equipment is involved, beakers and a silver scale and a thermometer with coarse wires. It is both tiring and comforting to watch him, this specific person who, for reasons I cannot remember this morning, is in my house, making coffee. White-robed like he’s in a hotel. Gray chest hairs. He still has a beautiful neck. The skin has started to loosen, but this only makes his neck seem more vulnerable—so exposed and hairless—and often, I have the urge to wrap it up with a scarf, or with my hands.
“I thought you were going to take the day off,” he says, smoothing the thermometer’s wires.
“Why would you think that?”
His neck skin creases when he looks up to the ceiling, beseeching God, maybe, to grant him patience. Years ago, before our relationship crossed the boundary between having fun to something serious, Pat told me that he liked that I was complicated, as if I were a tricky crossword puzzle, or a trade deal. But it gave me permission and a role to play. I suppose the trouble is that Pat expected to solve me eventually, that I would loosen like a plied knot. I sense that he hates me a little because I am not solved or loose, and I hate him a little, too, for wanting me to be different.
“Why do they call it a wake?” I ask.
“Your mother wasn’t Catholic,” Pat says, as if I forgot.
“You know what they should call a wake? They should call it ‘Remains to be seen.’”
Pat looks at me in a way that feels like he’s trying to figure out what stage of grief this is, the cracking-jokes phase. I’m aware that I should feel sad, or something more profound than sad—but I don’t. I feel like I’ve misplaced something vital. Where is my mother? Surely she’s in her condo in Todos Santos, just waking up, dissolving pellets of instant coffee in a mug. Pat says that we can talk tonight, because we should really discuss arrangements.
Ah, arrangements. The prospect of complicated logistics—it comforts Pat. Now this is a project.
“You’re in shock,” Pat says. “That’s normal.”
Never happier than when he’s diagnosing someone. Here is your problem, see? Right here. Your mother is dead.
Sometimes I need to escape Pat when we’re in the same room, so I travel back to yesterday, when Neve’s eyes went wide as I plunged my hands into the beans next to hers.
“Grown-ups need beans, too?” she had asked.
Shocking to feel, in a bucket of dried beans, the warm aliveness of one of Neve’s knuckles.
To Neve, I answered, “Not all grown-ups.”
This early, the school is dark, the copy room empty. In the teachers’ lounge, I flick on lights and press a new filter into the coffeepot. I check my mail cubby in case someone has, overnight, decided to give me a raise, or an award. My cubby holds only catalogs, thick publications featuring children whose smiles suggest coercion, that a nefarious someone is forcing them to be thrilled by mini-whiteboards, plastic counting bears, bags full of foam shapes.
The copy room is an open nook off the teachers’ lounge that feels more private than it is. I like the smells and the warmth, the reams of copy paper still wrapped. The sense of organization—letter size over here, the card stock over there. This morning, I feel odd affection for the sign someone typed and printed, its repetition soothing: Cardstock is ONLY for VERY special projects ONLY.
Strange how marvelous it is, a death. At least in part, at least this morning—how free I feel from all the little tasks I had been using to tack together my life. These papers I need to copy, I don’t really need to copy them. And the students on my schedule today, they will be fine.
“Knock, knock.” Hank lifts his arms, hooks his fingers onto the upper door frame, and leans forward, his chest out. He always arrives early because he’s dedicated, the kind of teacher who remembers, even years later, all of his students’ names. I’d like to wrap my legs around him. Grind against his hips until I turn his bones to gravel.
“Did you call your mom?” he asks.
And I realize that other people don’t know. It’s unfair. It’s dumb. That I must tell them and make it true all over again.
Hank holds me. Through his shirt I can feel the nubs of his back moles.
“It’s OK,” I tell him, because he seems to need to hear it. “We weren’t that close.”
But Hank only squeezes me tighter. He is so ready to be the person who allows me to cry, and who am I to not let him be that person? But I do not cry. Hank talks into my scalp, and I imagine his words seeping through my skull, sliding into the, my brain that does not understand yet what is happening. My brain where my mother is still unquestionably alive, shelling peanuts, flicking her cigarette ash, saying she is bloated, insisting that she is not asleep when she clearly is. She is asleep in the orange recliner, our macaroni dinner burning on the stove.
At ten, I go to Hank’s classroom to shadow Neve. He leads the class in song. Hank’s eyes follow me as I make my way to the rug, and it is impressive how, though he stares, he does not break the rhythm: “Hi! My name is Joe! And I work in a button factory.” The song has movements—“I push the button like this! I turn the knob like this!”—and Neve cannot keep them straight. She yanks the button, punches the knob. Kids nearby give her a wide berth.
In the copy room, Hank had asked me, “Should you be here?”
I suppose no one wants to be around the newly bereaved. We might as well be corpses ourselves, flailing about, our skin rotting off, trailing a slick of internal juices, pointing to others at random to remind them that they will die.
When it is time to sit in a circle, Neve tents her oversize T-shirt across her knees, her arms disappearing inside, the sleeves flappy. She rocks back and forth, and I whisper, “Whole-body squeeze.” She compresses into a ball, holds, then releases. From across the room, Snakey Wonder seems to want my attention. The snake waves her head behind the glass, looking like a puppet.
“Are you my mother?” I ask the snake, in a whisper, from the rug.
“Pardon?” Hank asks.
Twenty-one pairs of eyes fix on me. Hank looks concerned. He has, for a reason I have missed, a sock puppet of a fox on his hand. The sock puppet also looks concerned.
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought the snake was someone I know.”
Candace wrinkles her nose. Wise Julian nods with understanding. Several children sit up on their knees, craning to check if Snakey Wonder is someone they know, too. Hank regains their attention with a singing bowl, then carries on with his lesson. The fox wants to play with the duck, the squirrel, and the mouse, but they do not want the fox to play with them, I assume because the fox is a predator.
But no. Hank asks for suggestions from the crowd. Why do we exclude?
“The fox has shoes that don’t match,” says Candace. She is the kind of child who looks like she could give me unflinching advice about my marriage.
“The fox had tuna fish for lunch,” says a boy. “And tuna makes your breath stinky.”
“That isn’t nice,” Julian says.
The tuna fish boy shrugs. “Sucks to suck.”
Neve is about to blow. She quivers. She has started to hum under her breath. Candace tells her to shush. I tell Candace to shush. Hank is very involved in making the fox puppet cry. Now he wants solutions. What can be done to solve this problem?
“The fox should go play with someone else,” Candace says. “It’s obvious they don’t like her.”
Candace looks pointedly at Neve, who does not seem to notice because she is struggling to extricate one arm from her T-shirt tent while holding her other hand over her mouth to prevent herself from speaking out of turn. I pinch the back of her shirt to hold it in place. Her arm flies free and smacks Candace in the face. Hank sets his puppets down. “Peace Place,” Candace says. Hank nods. His eyes ask me to help and also question whether this is a good idea.
The Peace Place is a table covered with a batik cloth; sitting on the table are a snow globe and a lavender sachet. The snow globe contains a surly-looking dragon and features a banner with the words GREETINGS FROM EPCOT. Candace shakes the snow globe while taking deep breaths, taking her time to choose her “I” statement from a list: I feel … hurt, confused, angry, upset, worried, excluded, sad.
“I felt hurt when you punched me,” Candace says.
“It was an accident,” I say.
Neve looks up at me, sucking on the end of her braid.
“She’s supposed to echo,” Candace tells me.
“But it was an accident,” I repeat.
“It doesn’t matter,” Candace says. “Hank says only feelings matter.”
Of course. Such a Hank thing to say. I had argued that I should be allowed to sleep with Hank as a “freebie.” Pat and our counselor disagreed. Hank himself also disagreed. Perhaps that is why I chose him. Always, always, this urge to destroy. Hi! My name is Joe! And most of the time I feel dead inside!
“So, you felt hurt when I punched you in the ear,” Neve echoes, hopeful.
“Like you mean it,” Candace says.
Quickly, I imagine killing Candace.
Neve echoes Candace’s words again, pressing her hands on the table and pushing off in little leaps. Now they are to shake hands. Candace holds out limp fingers.
Neve skips away. She thinks this has gone great. With a clatter, she knocks over a wooden display of the solar system, and planets roll across the rug. Candace looks at me over the rim of glasses she will one day wear.
“Are you, like, Neve’s mom or something?” Candace asks.
Candace knows who I am. All the children do. I stare Candace down.
“Her mother died,” I say, the lie coming easily. “So you better be nicer to her.”
A flicker of confusion crosses Candace’s face, and a satisfying amount of worry. When I turn, Julian is there, holding out his hand. Mars, Jupiter, and tiny Neptune.
“It’s OK,” Julian says, setting the planets onto my palm. “Neve does that every day.”
In our weekly counseling session, Pat says I do not give him the right kind of affection. That I colonize our relationship with my anxieties. I imagine tiny me planting tiny flags of worries. I claim this hour for plane crashes and house fires and earthquakes!
Our counselor clears her petite throat. She owns the same sweater in several different shades of oxblood. It is a wrappy, drapey affair, and it makes her look like an abstract painting of a human heart.
She writes something in her notebook.
“What’s the score?” I ask her.
The point of her pencil hovers. She wants to know what I mean.
“What I mean,” I say, “is who’s ahead?”
“That’s not what we do here,” she says.
I rise from the couch and lie on my back on the floor. The ceiling is made of those speckled panels, the kind you can push out of their frames.
“So would you say that I am now losing?” I ask. “Because of that question?”
I can feel Pat and the counselor look at each other over my body. Near my face, the counselor’s feet are crossed primly, one ankle over the other. Under her chair are dust bunnies and the anguished cage of a dead spider’s upturned legs. Pat would like me to please get up now.
I could. I could get up. Sit back on the couch beside my husband. But if I did, I might slap him, and then I would truly lose points with the counselor, whose right foot turns in small circles like it is telling time. I could get up from the floor. Or Pat, he could join me.
I should, apparently, not be ridiculous.
But. A shuffling of wool. The setting down of a pencil on a hard cover. Our counselor’s body is unbelievable, even when it lies next to mine. I can feel her breath in the way her arm draws close, then retreats.
“It is healthy,” she says, “to change perspectives from time to time.”
What does Pat think? Impossible to tell. He is on his best marriage counseling behavior. He does not join us. His leg does that jiggy bounce that all men’s legs do when men are forced to sit still and have a conversation. Our counselor does not want this gamble to be a failure. She hates to insist, but Pat ought to try. So he sighs, and rises, and stretches flat, managing it all without touching even one part of me. The three of us splay on the carpet, waiting for one of the others to do it, to be the first to change.
Our counselor, inspired by her own quirkiness, says we both ought to say something we have never said aloud before. Because I am understanding and good and easy, I let Pat go first.
“Sometimes I think the reason I cheated on you is because you deserved it.”
The speckles on the ceiling panels are manufactured to look chancy. Planned randomness. Because you deserved it. The counselor says nothing. She thinks I deserved it, too. Now it is my turn to share something I have never said aloud.
“Someone ought to vacuum under your chair,” I say.
The counselor turns on her side to face me, and her posture feels so intimate, my eyes bristle.
“Do you want to change?” she asks, her head propped on her hand. “Most people, they would rather die than change.”
The counselor’s lipstick is two shades darker than her sweater.
“All right,” I say, “but are those my only options?”
Friday, again. Eucalyptus. On lunch break, Hank stretches an elastic band in my office, rolling his shoulders. He straddles the exercise ball. Bounce, bounce. Next week is Thanksgiving.
“Who’s taking care of Snakey Wonder over the break?” I ask.
“Makes sense. Not a burner.”
When Hank bounces, the flaps on his jacket pockets lift.
The first time we spoke, I caught him returning office supplies that he had borrowed. He was crouched in the closet with all the sticky labels, paper clips, and whatever toner is, the back of his pants pulled into a V to reveal his boxers: purple, with little white dots. A rip in the waist, elastic bulging. I told him he could keep the whiteboard markers and no one would mind. He said he would mind. There is something frightening about his sincerity. But he would also be the first man to break my string of partners who have names that are also commands: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. And he has a sense of humor about working with children. Some days, we play Burner-Not-a-Burner during recess duty, where we decide which children will one day attend Burning Man.
I had told my mother about the pattern with names: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat.
“You always liked to be told what to do,” she said.
Of course, there were other men. Scott. Two Jeremys. But I told my mother only Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. Because I thought it was funny. And unique. And because I knew she would make a quip of it, or a barb. Of most of my life, she made so very little.
“Let me take the snake.”
Hank, finally, has stopped bouncing. “Julian will be disappointed,” he says. I can see him arguing with himself: Disappoint a child, or disappoint this woman who frightens me?
Am I sure? Also, isn’t Pat afraid of snakes?
Why yes. Yes, he is.
But Pat is in Todos Santos for the holiday. Retrieving my mother’s body. Closing up her condo. Immersing himself in his beloved logistics and working up an appetite from the strenuous effort of not sleeping with other women. He’d bought two tickets, but then I discovered my passport had expired. Pat was annoyed but also pleased: my lapsed passport confirmed my flakiness, my hopelessness with life’s fundamentals. It was just as well, because I couldn’t face my mother’s last house, the bed where they found her. I’d have to imagine her slack mouth, her blue lips slid back and away from her teeth. Her body. The stubborn, sad fact of it. “Stroke,” they said. “No pain,” Pat said. Best-case scenario.
Taking care of a snake, it turns out, is not a good way to fill time. Every day, I check Snakey Wonder for signs that she is my mother. In a leather miniskirt and silk camisole, I ask the snake what she thinks of my outfit. Does her snake tongue flicker in judgment? I don’t know. She’s a fucking snake.
Leave it to my mother to not bother to haunt me. The day I left for college, she said, “Having kids, it’s just preparation for death.”
Another thing my mother said: “Life’s motto is don’t get too attached.”
So she practiced. From when I was little, she kept her distance. Summers, we watched her soap operas all day. What else can I say about her? She always smoked outside, never in the house. We lived together for eighteen years like two sovereign nations with equally catastrophic arsenals. Peace through stalemate. You can’t destroy me if I destroy you first. But she was my mother. The only one I had.
I open the school’s website and bide my time through the rotation of homepage photos until I see Hank. I try to take a screenshot, but the transition is too fast and I end up with a copy of a Black girl’s flying braids as she runs full tilt. So I wait. I know it is sad and a little ridiculous, that the only comfort I can find is the sight of Hank’s socks—green with pink arrows pointing this way, that way, this way—and imagining him sheathing his bare feet in the privacy of his mornings.
Pat calls from Mexico. Says if they cremate her there, it will be cheaper, easier. All right? All right.
“I kind of miss you,” he says.
I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of saying it back. I say it back.
“Quickie?” he asks. He sounds like a little boy, but I am achingly horny. It becomes apparent that the woman Pat is imagining sucking his penis, making coy eye contact—she is not me. But it is OK, because the man eating me out, he is not Pat. He is not Hank, either. He is no one I know, and he is every man I have ever fucked, and he is me, watching, as my husband’s voice encourages me—gently, with a kind of love—to come. We stay on the phone breathing.
“Leave it to your mother to fix our dry spell,” Pat says.
I still hate him, but I laugh.
“She never liked you,” I say.
I want him to say, She never liked you, either. I want something unforgivable, a clear door to walk through. This is over. But Pat cannot say that. Because I am in grief, he has to be patient and understanding with me.
“How’s the snake?” he asks.
“Withholding. Mercurial. Bit of a cunt.”
“So. Just what you like.”
Thanksgiving. I order takeout Thai and eat rice and green curry and pad see ew in one big heap from the last clean plate. “And what are you grateful for?” I ask Snakey Wonder. She is small and beautiful. Cream-colored, with thick orange stripes and thin yellow stripes and red eyes. The frozen mouse I left for her thaws near the water bowl. This is promising. My mother also had a strained relationship with food. When I was old enough to cook, she left meal planning to me. For a time, I treated it as an opportunity to please her. Spaghetti? Garlic bread? Omelet? Are you hungry?
Even when my mother wasn’t smoking, she exhaled as if she were.
“I’m hungry if you are,” she said.
It’s a terrible thing, to be a child in charge of an adult.
The internet tells me how to trick a snake into eating an already dead thing. Warmer than room temperature, the internet says, so I microwave the mouse. When I open the door, its fur steams. I tie a string around its gummy tail and “walk” it around Snakey Wonder’s enclosure. The mouse rakes moss and sawdust and snake shit with its limp paws.
Inside her hollow half log, Snakey Wonder’s coils tighten. I leave the mouse tied to its string. The mesh cover of the tank, along with the rock that secures it in place—I leave those on the floor.
The next morning, the mouse is gone. Also gone is Snakey Wonder. Part of me is impressed that the snake, who had shown so little interest in anything, would muster the energy to escape. But then I think of Hank. Why do other people occur to me too late?
The internet is too cavalier about my situation. A video says: “Your Snake is Loose! Now What?” Make sure no windows or doors are open. If they aren’t, your snake is in the house, and he could be hiding just about anywhere. Look in warm, cozy places, along baseboards, behind books and knickknacks.
In this way, I discover that Pat and I have no knickknacks. What have we been doing? Perhaps this is the source of our problems: a lack of evidence of our years together, our time served. Couples who tchotchke together stay together. Because they realize what a fucking hassle divorce would be, divvying up commemorative shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Pietà.
Think like a snake, not a human.
This stumps me. I can think like a snake as much as I can think like my mother. Still, for Hank, I try. No snake behind the liquor bottles, or in the tub, or in the bed. Just in case the snake is somehow harboring my mother’s wayward soul, I turn on daytime television, hoping a soap opera will tempt her from her hiding place. On the show, little has changed since I was a child. The living rooms full of tropical plants, the light striping through the blinds against the walls, the long conversations that include at least two moments when a man grabs a woman by the arm and spins her to face him. There is much brooding, punctuated by sudden outrage. My mother’s favorite was General Hospital. She had been a high school math teacher, so summers we were stuck together, time sliced into blocks of programming. The morning talk shows until eleven, then Jerry Springer, then the soaps through the sleepy afternoons, then Jerry Springer again. She pointed out things about Springer’s guests: “Look at all those piercings!” “That man couldn’t possibly be the father, look at how tight his pants are, he’s probably sterile.” Many of the women on the show dressed like teenagers or little girls, in cutoff overalls over Mickey Mouse T-shirts, their wrists strung with those thin plastic bracelets that everyone had in the nineties. Something terrible had happened to them. The women were stuck and stunted, slouching in their chairs as they told Jerry about their troubles. In one episode, “My Mom Stole My Man,” a white girl with cornrows chewed the insides of her cheeks. When Jerry introduced her mother, the audience booed. The mother carried a small purse that she clutched with both hands in front of her belly. When she sat, she set the purse in her lap. She stared at an anonymous spot on the floor in front of her feet, which were small and clad in plain white sneakers. As the daughter told of how her mother had tried to seduce her boyfriend, the audience jeered, and the mother stared at the spot she had chosen until, swiftly, she swung her purse and whacked her daughter across the face. The daughter fell and screamed, and the audience rose to their feet, and Jerry shook his head. The mother stayed in her seat. The daughter pointed and fumed and cried. The mother crossed one ankle over the other.
“See?” my own mother said at the commercial break. “I could be worse.”
On Saturday, Pat returns with an infuriating tan. He bends to kiss me and at the last moment I offer my cheek, which flummoxes him. His kiss lands on my ear. Pat sets something heavy and pale on the coffee table. A box. White cardboard. Its edges neatly taped.
“She’s smaller than I thought she’d be,” I say.
“It’s pretty big,” Pat says.
My ear is still wet from his mouth.
Pat sighs, says I would not believe the paperwork. The number of times he had to initial. His hand practically fell off from filling out forms. “Good thing you didn’t try to handle it yourself. Very complicated. Anyway, how was your time at home?
And why is there a blanket over the snake’s tank?”
For you, my dear idiot husband. For you.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break all move toward one anticipation: Revels, the annual all-school holiday performance. In my office, Neve tells me about Wee Willie Winkie with her hands in the beans. The second grade always does “Wee Willie Winkie” and she really wants to be chosen as Wee Willie Winkie, and she might be, because the music teacher says she is doing better in class since she started seeing me and do I think she will be? Chosen?
“I have no idea.”
The selection process for Wee Willie Winkie is both secretive and utterly predictable. A quiet, pliable, coordinated second grader, not the most popular or powerful, but someone everyone likes, the child equivalent of Dolly Parton. With her wayward limbs and cement-shoed feet, Neve does not stand a chance.
Later, I carry Snakey Wonder II in her tank to Hank’s room. Outside, the children’s recess games proceed as usual, in continuous near disaster. I check the snake, curled inside her hollow faux log. Not bad for a replacement, if a bit smaller than the first Snakey Wonder.
From behind me comes a small voice. Neve is lying on her belly in the Reading Corner, singing a little jumbled song. I tell her she ought to be at recess.
“Hank lets me sharpen the pencils,” Neve says, log-rolling across the circular rug. She joins me and Snakey Wonder II, pressing her nose to the glass.
“I don’t like recess anyway.”
All the typical responses flash through my brain: fresh air, exercise, “I bet you’d like it if …” If you could run without tripping over your own legs. If you had the right clothes. If you didn’t wear dresses that looked like haunted nightgowns.
The warmth from the heat lamp makes my skin feel tighter. I ask Neve if she wants to practice for Wee Willie Winkie.
I have seen the dance every year for the past three years. As pairs of kids link arms, turn right, turn left, then patty-cake, Wee Willie Winkie flits between them, holding an old-timey lantern. When the pairs lift their linked arms, Wee Willie Winkie passes beneath the bridges. Then the children fall asleep, slowly melting down to the stage.
Between the tables, Neve does not flit. She skips, trips, rises, and resumes her jerky cantor, like a drunk horse with a limp. She spins with her arms straight out, making the posters on the walls lift at their corners. Inevitably, she crashes dizzily into a chair. “Ouch,” she says, and keeps dancing. In no way does she follow the steps, but what she does is better, weirder; she is a chaotic Wee Willie Winkie, a delirious spirit, the embodiment of frenzy. I cannot take my eyes off her. When I tell her to go under the bridges, she drops to her knees and crawls under the tables, twisting and writhing over the carpet. Army-crawling, she collapses at my feet, breathing hard. Her face when she looks at me is red and beaming.
Hank conducts a Class Meeting. He reads from the notebook of Community Problems where children have written down what they have noticed. Sam has noticed how kids are still hiding pencils in their cubbies. Marla has noticed that the class is leaving crumbs and wrappers after snack. Hank leads the class in earnest discussion about the problems, and there is something hopeful about it, even when Liona, wearing what appears to be a leather shirt, suggests that children who hide pencils in their cubbies should no longer be allowed to use pencils and should have to dictate all of their work to other students and skip lunch.
Hank dismisses the students for snack in groups. First, everyone wearing blue shoes, then everyone wearing stripes, then everyone wearing fancy socks. He leaves it up to the children to determine whether or not their socks are fancy. Neve’s socks have a scalloped trim, and even though they also have several brown stains at the edges, I assure her that they are, in fact, quite fancy.
Hank turns on the audiobook the class listens to during snack. I have missed the beginning. There is dramatic music and the sounds of a storm. A woman speaks in a squeaky voice that sounds like an impersonation of a mouse on amphetamine. The children munch and slurp. Neve still hasn’t returned.
I find her sitting on the floor in the hallway. When I ask what’s happened to her snack, she shrugs. In the depths of her backpack, which is full of crumpled papers and hair bands woolly with strands of her tangled hair, I find her lunchbox, the plastic filmy with age, on the front a faded image of princesses, or so I assume, in dresses the color of tongues.
“Here it is,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
Inside the lunchbox is the problem. I drop the lunchbox and it lands, gaping, on the floor. Inside is an ancient-looking sandwich in a cloudy bag. An apple core. A sticky thermos. All of it crawling with ants.
“My parents never remember,” Neve says.
I kick the lunchbox closed and tell her to follow me.
On one wall of the teachers’ lounge is the graph of Our Strengths, an activity from the August retreat. According to the quiz, my top three strengths are Thinker, Ruminator, and Individualist. Every teacher’s name except mine is listed under Nurturer. Even Brenda, the vice principal with her scary suits and dead tooth, is a Nurturer.
The teachers’ lounge is reliable as a source of coffee and free food. Around the holidays, the table fills with boxes of chocolates and homemade cookies and Toblerone bars. Today the table has all that, plus a pink box of donuts, grease darkening the paper. I gesture to Neve to take what she wants. I feel bountiful, generous, as if any of this feast were mine to give. Neve selects a donut with frighteningly pink frosting and brown sprinkles. Like a predator with a kill, she crawls under the table.
“You don’t want to go back and hear the story?” I ask, folding myself to fit under the table.
Already, Neve’s mouth is stained magenta. She shakes her head and I understand. Based on what I heard, I wouldn’t want to listen to the story, either.
“Do teachers get to eat donuts every day?”
“Yes. We don’t need to drink water, did you know that? We only drink hot chocolate.”
“That’s not true. My mom drinks tomato juice.”
I think: I’m pretty sure that’s not just tomato juice.
“How come you never write in the Community Problems Journal?” I ask.
“About not liking recess.”
“It never helps,” Neve says.
She holds the last bite of donut in both hands. She tries to make the frosting last, darting her tongue to lick it off in tiny specks.
“Do you want another one?”
I know that sugar is the last thing this kid needs. Her body, on a normal day, is already gripped by a tremendous and savage energy. But that is a problem for later.
For now, there is no sugar crash. Now there is only airy dough and pliant frosting.
Secret fillings of jam. And sometimes we need exactly what we don’t need.
At least that is what I tell Hank later in my office when he describes Neve’s sugar-crash afternoon. Two breakdowns, he says. She couldn’t complete any of her work. I have a hard time accepting donuts as the cause. But it’s not just about the donuts. Candace told Hank that Neve’s mother died.
“Why’d you lie?” Hank asks. He is unusually still.
I tell him the truth, ridiculous as it sounds.
“I thought it might help Neve. Get her some … sympathy from other kids.”
“You see other students,” Hank says, as a suggestion.
It is the meanest thing he has ever said to me.
“Sausage roll?” I ask.
“No sausage roll.”
Whatever was not happening between us, it has just ended.
At the trailer door, Hank says, “Julian’s gonna be Willie Winkie.” As if I didn’t know.
I run low on ways to tell Pat without telling him that I have no interest in touching him. In one week, I have suffered five headaches and two bouts of probably-just allergies.
In counseling, Pat says he feels I’m not supporting his self-actualization.
Our counselor looks at me from the coils of her oxblood wrap.
“But I do support that,” I say.
“You see what I mean?” Pat asks the counselor.
The counselor snuggles down into her sweater.
“I do see what you mean.” She turns to me. “Do you see what he means?”
“It’s triggering,” Pat says. “My dad, you know, I never felt supported by him, either.”
Then Pat is crying, and our counselor is thrilled, handing him a flurry of congratulatory tissues. All I get are side scowls that indicate I have failed at counseling. No points for second place.
I do not feel the right feelings. I am supposed to be sad about my mother, but the greater sadness came years ago, when it became clear that she was not interested in making up for lost time. I visited her in Todos Santos, thinking maybe Mexico had loosened her in that vague, romantic way foreign places are supposed to stretch you at the seams, make you think of your life in America as unbearably >small and too full of parking lots and cheeseburgers and class envy. My mother’s condo building resisted the town’s charms. No bougainvillea. No phallic cacti in artisanal pots. Inside her condo, we could have been anywhere. We watched television with the blinds drawn, ate microwaved meals. We walked by the ocean and swam at Punta Lobos beach. We did not talk more than we had before, which is to say, we talked very little. My mother was happy to have me so long as I could fit into her version of time—a silent shadow, a temporary guest. The visit was sad and confusing. I looked at her in her recliner, rocking, content. And I thought: Why don’t you want more? Why are you happy?
Lack of recognition, though, travels both ways. She could not understand why I wanted to marry Pat when there were hundreds of thousands of men left to screw.
“What a waste of the good skin I gave you,” she said. “And great hair!”
On that trip, I felt so enlightened, so superior. But what did I know? My mother knew what she loved—ocean swimming, convenience store Chardonnay, talk shows with surprise paternity tests—and she loved it without apology.
“Nice visit,” my mother said at the bus that would take me back to Cabo. It broke my heart that she meant it.
“I know she loved you a lot,” Hank had told me.
Maybe. But she loved her freedom more.
And I—I can understand that.
The weekends become long stretches of freeway Pat and I must drive straight through. Saturday night, I call Pat from the laundry room. He is on the couch.
“Tell me what you’re wearing,” I say, even though I know what he’s wearing: sweatpants and a button-down.
Something clanks in the dryer. A zipper maybe. Loose change. I can’t dip into the image of myself watching as I eat myself out. Clank goes the thing. I stop and kneel to tug warm, damp clothes from the dryer. The clothes are streaked with something pink and oily. I find it, the clanky thing, a tube of my own lipstick, the pink leaking out from the seam. Why this, of all things, should make me cry is not clear. Pat must think my sounds are ones of pleasure, because his breath quickens as I bury my face into the pile of ruined clothes, melted lipstick smearing into my hair as I rend the strands. And there is something thrilling about that, about my body knowing what to do, and it is not so different from sex, in that one way. I rend and rend.
The heat has left the clothes by the time Pat nears the big finish. When I get up, I will gather what I need. What do I need? Only the snake, who I had seen earlier in the living room near the heating vent behind the sofa. When I reached to grab her, she slinked away, and I thought, All right.
“Oh,” my husband says, “oh my, oh my.” Pat gasps, grunts, sighs. I love that moment, with all men, how tender they are, how in those seconds you can tell exactly what they looked like as scared little boys. What do I need? I have no idea, but I do know exactly why I keep the phone on speaker. How rare it is, clarity. Better than happiness, because I don’t need to share it with anyone, not with my husband. I leave him on speaker because I know his sounds—this sound, and that one—are part of the last time.
Neve and I practice the steps for Revels. Left, right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up, then fall asleep. Neve wants to fall asleep all at once, as if she’s been shot. “Slow,” I tell her. Together, we fall to the ground like melting candles.
“Where have you been staying?” Pat wants to know on the phone. “Hotel,” I tell him, though really, I have been sleeping in my office. It gets cold at night, but there is a nice view, and I can leave the diffuser on as long as I want, pouring every oil into the tank until the smell feels like someone yelling right into my nostrils.
“You can come by and get your things,” Pat says, “whatever you need.”
He cannot believe how generous he is being. How well he is handling this.
“Don’t need to,” I say.
I have toiletries, a sleeping bag, and my mother, tucked in the cupboard under
the sink where I now wash my underpants. “There is,” Pat says, “one more thing. Yvette and I, we’ve been spending some time together.”
“It’s been very hard on me, this whole thing. It hasn’t been easy, you know.”
This whole thing.
On the wall, the Feelings Thermometer tells me I should be in the red, but I am not. I am in the green—calm, content, in control—when I tell Pat he should have the house. Outside my windows, the woods do nothing. Nothing falls or snaps or bends in a breeze. Everything stands still as if suspended in gelatin.
Pat can have the house? With Yvette? Am I sure?
I hope it happens while they are making love. All that human warmth. Snakey Wonder will not be able to resist. Sensing the heat on the tip of her papery tongue, the snake candy-canes up the bedpost, slithers under the sheets. Silently, I cheer her on, that future snake. Not there, Snakey Wonder, don’t stop—go further, toward the warmest, wettest place you can find. Go.
The night of Revels, the parents arrive with their children. What is it about children in Christmas clothes? I do not hate it. The preponderance of small red sweater vests and gingham dresses with full skirts is festive in a recognizable way, the way a commercial is festive. In head-to-toe velvet, including an odd red velvet hat, the music teacher is stressed and loving it, darting between parents, bending low to give children last-minute reminders. “Come in with the violin on the eight, remember? The eight!”
I expect Neve’s dress to be tragic, but it’s surprisingly modern and fashionable, a purple tube slick with sequins. Someone in her household has sense: the dress is short. One less thing for Neve to become tangled in. She wears the same old tennis shoes as always, shoes that were probably white once. When I reach her through the lobby crowd, I tell her she looks nice.
She shoots glances this way, that way, her nervous system overloaded with sound. As she brushes and brushes the sequins of her dress, several fall off and flicker to the carpet.
“You can always do a whole-body squeeze,” I tell her. “No one will notice.”
Neve drops, right there, and hugs her knees into her chest, her eyelids wrinkling with effort. When she releases, she sighs massively and stretches over my feet like a cat.
“Where are your parents?”
“Not here,” Neve says from the floor. Nearby, a boy turns and stares. When his mother catches where he’s gazing—at Neve splayed across the floor—she does that mother-arm-shoulder thing and draws him back, protective, as if Neve were dangerous.
“What?” I say, too loudly, to the woman’s back.
can tell the woman hears me, because her shoulders tighten beneath her glossy bolero, the color a sickly-looking silver, the shade of paper money.
“Do you have something to say?” I ask.
She turns, her arm still wrapped around the shoulders of her son. She looks at me, then down at Neve, then back to me.
“A shame,” she says. Mock pity.
“Sucks to suck,” I tell her.
Now she has both hands on her son’s shoulders. He wriggles underneath her grasp, trying to shake free. Then the lights flicker and save us all, and the woman strides away, or strides as best as she can manage while also trying to steer her flailing son. Neve leaps up. “I have to go,” she says, and dashes away.
Inside the theater, the stage is ringed with fake wreaths and electric candles. From the dark, the piano starts with a slow “Deck the Halls” as fifth graders file onto the stage with bells on their ankles. They dance, followed by fourth graders in formal wear, boys and girls struggling not to giggle as they link arms. Half the third grade wears reindeer antlers, the other half bejeweled clogs. They jig and lift their arms and the audience claps asynchronously, and it all feels like being inside someone’s addled mind. Lights down, lights up. Second graders flitter onto the stage, now dressed in matching plaid pajamas and nightgowns. They sing, high-pitched and haunting:
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock
“Are the children in their bed, for now it’s ten o’clock?”
Neve and her partner spiral left, spiral right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up. Julian brandishes his lantern and weaves under the arm bridges, his old-fashioned nightcap flying behind him. Then they do it all again, singing, and Neve only becomes confused once, when she turns the wrong way. Patty-cake, arms up. Neve falls asleep. Beautifully. Just as we practiced, and better. She falls slowly, fake-yawning, stretching. She is the slowest, the last child to lie on the stage. The crowd makes a collective “Aww” and there is
the silence that happens just before applause.
Neve sits straight up. The rest of the children are still asleep, as they should be, eyes closed. Go back to sleep, I plead silently. She smiles out to the crowd. She stands. The piano player, courageously, plays through the last bars again. And Neve. She takes a breath. Lifts her arms. Cartwheels. Bows, then falls asleep again.
And I am on my feet. It doesn’t matter that when she goes over, her nightgown slides up and shows her baggy underpants. It doesn’t matter that I have no fucking idea how a child who cannot cross one foot over the other figured out how to cartwheel. It doesn’t matter that her classmates stay asleep, that they don’t know why the applause has come three notes before the actual end.
In the lobby rush, I try to spot Neve, to tell her how great she was. The crowd is hard for me to see, though, because I am thinking about my mother again. How she came to my performances, all of them. Sat in the back with her purse in her lap, the strap held together with staples. Did I ever thank her?
Through the lobby windows, I see Neve skipping. Beside her, a white-haired man, her grandfather, I assume. He wears one of those thin khaki jackets that are issued to all men when they reach a certain age. He nods his head at Neve’s endless monologue. He holds her hand while she leaps and hops, yanking his arm. It must be uncomfortable. But he doesn’t let go.
After, I return to my office, unroll my sleeping bag. The trick is to stay and help clean up after school functions. People cannot help but offer you bottles of opened wine, platters of picked-over food. I bounce on the yoga ball, and eat pepper jack and honeydew and salami. I drink a third of a bottle of table white, then half a red.
When I turn off the lights, the woods out the windows undarken a little, and the Douglas firs lace over one another. Neve’s grandfather’s car probably has one of those pine air fresheners dangling from the rearview. Is he mad at Neve? No. He is amazed by her. What guts! What gusto! Just like him. Who said that children are our way of casting ourselves into the future? They might be, but they do just as much casting themselves, sending us back into the past. Neve’s grandfather played Sky Masterson in high school, I imagine. He sang “My Time of Day” like Marlon Brando, with wounded longing. That’s what Neve reminded him of, I think—himself, young again, feeling like Marlon Brando.
And what did I remind my mother of? I can easily make up a whole life for Neve’s grandfather, but for my own mother—impossible. Like a dream you know you’ve had but can’t remember.
I lay out the weighted blanket, stretch, and sausage roll.
Just when we thought it would never come, it arrives, the last day before break. Like any other day, except with an exhausted kind of anticipation in everyone’s tone. It is also, as it happens, my last night in my trailer. I have found an apartment, a secondfloor studio in a part of town too young and hip for me. I will miss the hours at the school when no one else was around, when I could wander the dim halls, through the patchy glow of red exit signs.
I have gathered my belongings back into my suitcase. My mother, I feel, I cannot pack, so I set her on the kid-size table. I use child-safe scissors to cut through the tape. Inside is a plastic bag. The ash looks dusty, like it would stick to my hands, and it does, I find, after I open the bag and plunge my hands down in.
The trailer door bangs, and I withdraw my hands quickly, sending some ash into the air. Wearing huge rain boots under her dress, Neve clobbers over, unsteady as ever, dear as ever, and kneels and puts her hands in the ashes. Part of me wants to yell—yes, it does—but that part is small and mean and I don’t have to listen, because as her hands work under the surface, Neve settles. Her body relents and releases her.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s weird,” she says, “but also nice.”
I put my hands back in. Sometimes I feel Neve’s fingers and sometimes I don’t. The ash is soft, speckled with harder bits that I know are my mother’s bones. We don’t talk. We stay like that for a long time.
I walk out to check on the squawking hens & brood
of chicks, the morning night an atmospheric dew
immune to suspicion & fear unlike the nature
of heifers in the barn, a rest from snagging necks
on barbed wire to eat honeysuckles along the fence
line, a commotion often thwarted by territorial hens
perhaps unsettled by the blue moon, I think, heading
up the hill for a view, pausing to watch a feather
sailing near a dogwood Grandpa planted before he died,
ate up with cancer, heart gave out—then an awful cry
from an owl in a trap atop the shed’s utility pole deceptively
moving, shadows shimmering the ground, up its greased
spine, a barn owl pecking at cotton rats scaling the pole,
a claw trap Grandpa set, a trap I failed to move.
Delightful way to go,
I say to the fox salivating from a distance,
vanishing within the vowels of night, the consonants
of curiosity. May mine be like the jazzy sap of maple
trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates,
my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise,
no second death! Yes, an eternal weekend of light slides.
May I welcome my first not by my hand.
I resist the voice that speed-dials a coward’s end:
Curse the pills crushed in milk, the train that tempts
me to its tracks, the nail gun hissing near my temple.
The tongue can heal, the tongue can kill, I rebuke what lessens me.
Better to seek than to stray: Nearer, my God, to thee.
Is that you whispering, “Ain’t I good,” while I ease my maple’s tap,
that ladybug hitchhiking the grasshopper’s back,
that dragonfly patrolling the stalled tractor in the pasture,
those hypnotic eyes of a luna moth thought dead in monkey grass,
awakened by my breath, wings winking toward an ash
tree where I carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter”?
My heart knows its sadness, only I can share its joy on hiatus
lately: To lose a love, his highway death—suicide, some say,
is like an anchor, a wasp that won’t let go. Going blind,
like a curtain slowly closing, is a grief of a different kind.
To see or not to see, that is the question. Nonetheless,
may this morning bring digression. May the wild lilacs
rise in the air as I burn the pasture, burnt grass
crackling like fat in a skillet, like popcorn between my toes
when I rescue a fledgling fleeing weeds near approaching
flames. May the hen, missing a chick last seen among the scallions
skirting the coop, raise the bobwhite quail with her brood.
We all deserve second chances, companions too.
At the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, our goal was to provide a safe place for people to get treatment and heal, so it was bad when one of our guests got hurt during their stay. I don’t mean on a horseback-riding trip or from slipping on the tiled deck of the mineral pool. I’m talking about a dart to the third eye.
All our guests came to stay with us because they were suffering from one or more weaknesses in the trifecta of mind, body, and spirit. Norbert Fischer had traveled all the way from Germany. He wanted to give his mind room to breathe, he said, to allow a higher percentage of his brain to function, and we were like, “You’ve come to the right place.” Norbert participated in the Spring I session, which lasted for three weeks, and he had this mix of Zen and good cheer that could have tricked you into thinking it wasn’t his first trepanation. His procedure was scheduled for early in the morning, when sunlight started to break up the mist and wash the world in gold. The staff later told me that he’d said “Thank you” before they made the first incision. After the whole thing was over and he’d gotten stitched up and bandaged, he went straight to the dining hall and shook hands with the kitchen staff, beaming as if he’d just had a child, and ate a breakfast of sausage, grits, and black tea. That’s the kind of man he was, endlessly hungry.
Norbert’s recovery was textbook, no issues, no complications, until right before he was due to go home. He was playing darts in the game room with a fellow guest, Wilmer Alvarez of Buenos Aires. I had been arranging flowers in the great room when I heard Wilmer calling for help and saying that he had accidentally thrown a dart and hit Norbert in his third eye. The third eye is the hole drilled in the head during a trepanation. The skin is cut and peeled back, then a drill goes through the skull, drumming up a ring of wet-looking bone dust. The drill stops before it hits the brain and then is retracted. In the old days, the procedure was performed with an auger, cranked by hand, or sometimes giant screws, chisels, or scrapers. The modern way is electric.
When I rushed into the game room, Norbert was sitting in a chair, arms on the armrests, ankles crossed, the dart sticking out of his forehead. A cup of tea rested on one of the shelves across the room, which made me wonder if he had decided, at the last minute, to cross in front of the dart’s path to retrieve it. I remember everything about how he looked, sitting there. He was wearing loafers without socks. A once white Henley French-tucked into a pair of blue wool trousers. His face was pale and smooth, with fine wrinkles around the eyes, but the skin on his neck was pink and resembled gooseflesh. There wasn’t even gauze wrapped around his head by that point—no, he had insisted on having it removed, saying that the incision wanted to breathe. Poor man. He had wanted the whole of himself to breathe through that aperture in his head and the whole of the world to breathe into him.
The dart was deep in there, there being his brain, and just a tiny bit of the feathered tip stuck out. It didn’t help that Wilmer Alvarez was incredibly fit, having been a matador in Mexico in his youth. Imagine him sticking banderillas in the back of a bull’s neck. Imagine the tendons and muscles in his arms when he threw that dart, the speed at which it traveled. Wilmer was saying that he didn’t know what had happened, he’d never even played darts before, his athleticism was a curse. I called an ambulance and sat with Norbert. He started saying things in German that I couldn’t understand. Something about his tone made it seem like he might be telling Wilmer that it was all right, that it had been an accident, that the world had a will of its own and we as guests on earth must learn to accept the plot twists. At the time, I took this wisdom to mean the trepanation had been successful and that his mind had been expanded. It didn’t even cross my mind that it could have been gobbledygook. Norbert gave me a thumbs-up as he was carried away on a stretcher. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma.
Our guests had to sign a bunch of paperwork when they arrived, basically saying we couldn’t be held liable for anything that went wrong. This was considered alternative medicine, so there was a play-at-your-own-risk attitude. The head of operations at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat, a man by the name of Dan Collier, who definitely wouldn’t have had that job if his father hadn’t been the retreat’s cofounder, said thank God it was a freak accident and not malpractice. Otherwise our reputation might have gone down the tubes.
The big reason I felt terrible was that I had been the one to hang up the dartboard in the first place. I was head of guest services and did any number of things around the property, depending on what was needed, such as changing sheets, fulfilling special requests, and maintaining the aesthetic integrity that guests came to expect of the retreat. I also did things like deciding we were missing a dartboard. This is probably because when I was growing up, my father kept a dartboard in his office at the University of Florida. He was a professor of anthropology, and whenever I went to school with him, he’d be off getting coffee with graduate students or attending department meetings and I would be left to play darts among his stacks of books and ungraded papers in Turlington Hall. My mother was also a professor of anthropology, but, being department chair, she was, as a rule, busier, more stressed out, and less tolerant of my gum-smacking. Her office was farther down the hall, near a display of an ancient mortar and pestle.
After the Spring I session ended, all of the guests departed, including Wilmer Alvarez. Dan said everything was fine, legally speaking, to which I said yippee. I still felt this personal guilt, both because I’d hung up the dartboard and because I hated the idea of one of my guests leaving in a condition worse than the one in which they’d arrived. Before I started working at the retreat, I had been a guest myself. So maybe I imagined myself in Norbert’s shoes and thought, What if I put my well-being in someone else’s hands and they let me get a dart to the third eye? The third eye never blinks. I became a little depressed.
Between sessions, I cleaned half-heartedly and often tuned the portable radio that we kept on the room service cart to a station that played bizarre ambient stuff. One time I was restocking the cart, making sure it was loaded with towels, soap, and extra toothbrushes, when one of the cleaners on my team asked me what I was listening to. I said it must be some avant-garde broadcast from a liberal arts college somewhere, and Liz, a teen mom who wore braids and ribbons in her hair, said, “I think that’s a dead channel.” I didn’t know that was a thing, but she said I hadn’t been listening to music at all and it was just a white-noise whale song bouncing off the topography.
So that is what I was dealing with when the Spring II session began and I met Flip Goldberg. He was my perfect guest, a dream born of a nightmare, and I knew from the first moment I saw him that he was mine to protect.
The first morning of the Spring II session, I got up when it was still dark outside. I did a final walk-through of my domain, which included the great room, the game room, the listening room, the Brown lounge, and the observation deck. It was a manageable domain, so it seemed reasonable that every inch should be exactly right, not an artifact out of place, not a patch of velvet brushed in the wrong direction. Other teams dealt with the kitchen, the spa, the barn, the trepanation theater, etc., and even though all that stuff was flashier, I took pride in the fact that my rooms became known as “home.” Home was comfortable. Home was safe. You could call the front desk, say, “I’m cold,” and I would be there with a blanket.
I put a few more citronella candles out on the observation deck and found an apple core in one of the trash cans in the great room, which I put in my back pocket. I could have taken the extra two minutes to walk in the kitchen and drop it into one of the big bins, but carrying around trash seemed like a small punishment I deserved. Ever since the dart accident, I was always looking for little ways to hurt myself. It felt good to feel bad, and it felt especially good to feel bad in the early morning, when the mist had not yet shifted from ominous to luminous. We were already into the spring sessions on the retreat’s calendar, but in terms of weather and mood, we had just come to the edge of winter and were about to cross over.
I went in the game room and stood there for a minute, among the busy shelves, the leather armchairs, and the goatskin rugs. I touched the pool table, softest burgundy, with my hand. The wallpaper was desert shrubs, cowboys on painted ponies, coyotes drinking rainwater from hoofprints. There was no physical evidence that anything bad had happened in this room, and though I knew the memory of seeing Norbert Fischer with dart feathers sprouting from his third eye was a thing trapped in my head and not a thing that existed, presently, in the real world, still I wondered why that memory had to linger when it could easily slip through my own unblinking third eye and be released. I suspected it was because you couldn’t always choose what you let go of, that just as often the good slips away as the bad. For instance, I’d recently realized that I couldn’t remember my father’s middle name, which seemed like an unbelievable thing to forget, to lose, to have slipped through my third eye without my even knowing. I could have called my mother and asked, but I didn’t like to bother her.
I took down the dartboard and removed the set of darts from the wooden box they were kept in, a box cared with pine cones and squirrels. Was it ironic or was it fitting that the dart to pierce Norbert Fischer had slept on velvet in a Black Forest box? It was perfect and it was painful. The set wasn’t even complete anymore, since one of the darts had traveled to the hospital and probably ended up in a hazardous waste bag or something. If it was incinerated, good, but if it went to the landfill it would likely pierce another innocent animal in the head.
I took the dart stuff to Dan’s office. Golf clubs stood erect as Boy Scouts in the corner of the room, while on the desk sat an unopened Sea-Monkey kit that one of his kids must have given him. All of the guest paperwork was printed out and arranged in a neat stack of folders, which was important in case another tragedy struck and we needed legal language to free us from financial and emotional obligations. Reparations? Nah. Guilt? Who could be bothered? In front of his computer, Dan hunched and scowled in the blue light. He must have trimmed his nose hairs that morning, because he kept rubbing a knuckle on the end of his nose. I leaned the dartboard against a file cabinet and set the bundle of darts on the floor. I had put a rubber band around them, so I wouldn’t have to throw away the beautiful box. Without even looking at me, Dan said, “Everything all set?”
I said, “Destroy this.”
What he said caught up with me. Of course everything was all set. If it wasn’t all set, I would have still been dealing with it, instead of sitting in the wine-colored chair in his office. The thing about Dan was that he shaved on the first day to make a good first impression and then let his beard grow out over the course of the three weeks, which had an inexplicably endearing effect on the guests.
I said, “I have a bad feeling,” and Dan looked up from the computer, eyebrows pinched as if I’d summoned evil. He said, “Enough with the bad attitude. Do me a favor, would you? Smile today, for God’s sake.”
“He’s in a coma, Dan.”
Dan twisted his wedding ring around his finger. “As you will recall,” he said, “we have a special someone coming. So I would greatly appreciate it if you made yourself the picture of hospitality. One person has a good time, they tell their friends, their friends come and have a good time. It’s called word of mouth. It keeps the lights on. So if you can’t get yourself straightened out, we’ll have a talk.”
“We’re talking now.”
“I’m sorry, let me rephrase. We’ll have to reexamine your position here.”
Dan was bad at being human. He seemed to forget that I had once been a guest at the retreat, and back then, two years earlier, I had been sitting in that very chair as a paying guest and not as his subordinate.
“You know how I figured out who the special someone is?” he asked. “The guy registered with one name, but it didn’t match the name on the credit card. Can you guess who it is?”
“I’ll give you a hint. His face is on the cover of the National Enquirer. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame got bashed in with a hammer. I thought about turning him away, but we need the business.”
Trash-talking guests was not a game I played.
I said, “I don’t gossip,” and left.
It made me sick to think of Dan running a lint roller over his quarter-zip and practicing his smile in front of the mirror. I’m sure he did that before welcoming new guests. He had to get in character as someone likable.
It began as it always began. Our shuttle pulled into the front driveway and hummed in mist turned red by brake lights. Walkie-talkies buzzed as the bellboys, Jimmy and Rodrigo, furiously finished their chicken biscuits, balled up the greasy wrappers, shot them into a trash can from an imaginary free throw line, and jogged through the service hallway into the great room. Their tennis shoes gripped softly. Their calves bounced like oranges. The front doors opened for them automatically—what New World extravagance, what accessibility!—and when they returned they were loaded down with luggage. They breathed through their noses, never their mouths.
Dan led the guests inside. They floated on a wave of mist that skated over the floor and then dissipated in the warmth of the room. The vapor was still there, even if we couldn’t see it with the naked eye. It drifted over the handwoven rugs and leather sofas, then rose to the height of the antler chandelier and curled around buck points. Dan lifted his hands like he was playing preacher. Guests tentatively approached display cases holding shards of ancient pottery, medicine pouches, delicate pipes. On the wall hung a framed photograph of our three founders with shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Dan’s father, Frederick Collier, stood in the middle. The little plaque read new beginnings, 1978. The guests looked up,
around, and beyond, to the observation deck that faced the sunrise each morning, with a row of rocking chairs.
I watched the guests from behind a service door. I always enjoyed seeing their reactions, which was selfish of me, I know, but surely not the bad kind of selfish, because it meant I took pride in my work. When Norbert Fischer had arrived for Spring I, he had said, loud enough for the entire group to hear, “What do I see? I see wonderful things!” A memory tolled in me when he said that. As a child, I’d read a book about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. When Howard Carter cracked into the tomb for the first time and cast light on what treasure had been sitting in the dark all those years, someone behind him asked, “What do you see?” and he said, “I see wonderful things.”
I counted six. There were always seven. I figured the missing guest was the someone special mentioned by Dan, the one who had registered with a different name from the one on his credit card. It was highly unusual to arrive outside of the designated “welcome window,” but it wasn’t my place to judge, only to serve where I could. Dan’s voice was muffled, but I heard him leading the group into the dining hall for breakfast. I slipped down the service corridor and into the kitchen, where I saw the head cook, Farrah, spying through a little porthole in the kitchen door. She said, “They’re all going for the avocado. No one’s touching the oatmeal.”
I hopped up on the stainless steel counter and began rolling knives and forks into napkins. My adrenaline was pumping, as it always did with new arrivals, and I needed to give my hands something to do. A whiteboard hung in the kitchen that listed every guest’s name and any relevant dietary info. There were a couple of vegetarians and a pescatarian, which was fairly common with every group, since there was a big overlap between people who wanted to get a trepanation and people who didn’t believe in eating meat. At the bottom of the whiteboard, Farrah had written:
–REQUESTS MEALS BE TAKEN IN HIGS ROOM
After breakfast, the six new guests were taken on a tour. They met the horses, saw the brand-new kiln in the art therapy room, and shook hands with the medical team who would be supervising the physiological aspect of their treatment. Then they were shown to their suites, to unpack and wait for their appointments with Dan to complete the paperwork. I made sure to smile as I introduced the guests to their suites, pointing out little touches like the linen bathrobe, the smudging kit, and the basketful of bottles of spring water and clementines. When I looked them in the eyes—Hulda, Axel, Inga, Tomás, Richard, Nattapong—I tried not to imagine them getting hurt. I tried to imagine them safe and clean and restored. I said, “If there’s anything I can do, please ask.” They smiled, nodded. I said, “Anything at all.”
People didn’t really ask for outrageous things as often as you might expect. For the most part, guests were polite and didn’t want to make a fuss. There was only one time when something weird happened, and the guest who made the request was suffering from a major chemical imbalance. I won’t say her name, because she has political ambitions. One night she called the front desk and asked if I could come to her room. A piece of used toilet paper lay unrolled on the bathroom counter like a soiled scroll. She requested that I read the marks, from left to right, and tell her what I saw. She said she saw birds, tons of birds, and if it really was tons of birds, that was an omen she couldn’t live with. She asked, “Do you see birds?” I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from gagging. I told her that I didn’t see birds, only clouds blowing in the wind, which was the truth. She said she could live with that.
Where did it come from, this desire to serve? I guess you could argue it came from having a father who served his entire life, offering all of himself to his students, his university, his field, his wife and daughter. Or I guess you could argue it came from a mother who mainly served herself, which I can’t necessarily blame her for, because I know she was the first woman to be department chair and that came with its own challenges, namely an endless stream of spittle from the old guard, but it would have been nice if she’d held my hand every now and then. My dream was a tent made of bedsheets, draped over kitchen chairs, and a flashlight casting spooky shadows. What I wanted was for her to crawl in the tent with me and tell me about sleeping in a gorilla’s nest during her field research and waking to the sound of rain. It didn’t matter if that actually happened or not. I guess most women who are the first to do something are sacrificial lambs, as in, OK, you’re doing something exceptional here, but the other parts of your life will dry up.
The mist was heavy all through the morning and into the afternoon. I fetched extra pillows. I relayed the Wi-Fi password. I passed around binoculars on the observation deck and pointed out a skinny black bear that had just emerged from hibernation. It flipped over a rock, sniffed, and sneezed. The guests asked if we had a nickname for the black bear, and when I said no, Nattapong suggested the name Equality, which we all liked. Finally, the sun came out at the warmest hour of the day and the mist thinned, revealing dark patches of trees, trees gasping for breath, and that’s when the helicopter was finally given clearance and Flip Goldberg came down from the sky. He stepped out of the helicopter in a Hawaiian shirt, chinos the color of butter, and flip-flops, with one Louis Vuitton bag slung over his shoulder and another in his hand. He wore gold aviators. Dan had warned me, “Don’t act starstruck. And don’t bring up the accusations.” I told him it wouldn’t be a problem. I was a professional. The bellboys took Flip’s bags and jogged down the quarter-mile trail to the retreat.
Over the helicopter’s slow chop I shouted, “Welcome to the Smoky Mountains, Mr. Goldberg.” Flip ignored the greeting, then headed down the trail by himself. Flip Goldberg was his stage name. Even so, he let everyone call him that. He must have been cold, since he didn’t have on a jacket, only resort wear, but he didn’t comment on the weather at all. It was obvious from the first moment I met him that he was used to leading, not being led. The helicopter revved up, rose above the trees, and surged west.
I followed at a respectful distance and thought, This is what a celebrity looks like. Flip was forty-four years old, and I could tell his true age from the sun-damaged skin on the tops of his ears. His hair was dark, almost black, and the silver at his temples flashed whenever he turned his head. The hair was buzzed to hide the fact that he was developing a bald spot, but a bald spot coming on gently. His neck was not anything special, although I paid attention to it, because most of my first impression of him was from behind, which might sound dirty, except I made a conscious effort not to look at his butt. Instead I looked at the skin on the back of his neck, which was deeply tanned with an orange undertone that made sense once I learned that he had been hiding out on the Big Island before coming to the retreat. That’s where he must have gotten his shirt. It was printed with Hawaiian teenagers feeding one another rings of pineapple.
As we walked down the trail, from helicopter pad to retreat, he moved with confidence, never slipping on a rock or tripping over a root. Despite the turmoil in his life, he seemed to convey strength and resilience that I would not have expected of someone in the throes of a scandal. A bald eagle sat in a tree ahead of us, holding a fish in its mouth, the fish’s wet tail gleaming, dripping water, but Flip Goldberg didn’t even look up. It would have been easy for me to judge him then, to say he was a Hollywood prick, that he couldn’t see past himself, but when you are in guest services and you take your job seriously, you do not judge. If I say that over and over, know it’s something I believe.
Flip’s suite was the largest we offered and also the most private. It was a room that made you feel at the center of the universe, which would have been an incredible rush for regular people, for people like me, but it was the norm for people like him. I had learned the most basic facts of his career earlier that morning, when I overheard an assistant cook ask Farrah why Flip Goldberg was famous in the first place. She explained that he started off with sketch comedy and stand-up, then transitioned into cameos and supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, and then created and starred in his own kids’ TV show. Apparently the kids’ show did the miraculous thing of appealing to both kids and adults, but especially potheads. This was a level of success nobody could have predicted for such an offbeat talent. “Offbeat” was the word Farrah had used, as in, Good thing you’re funny, because you’ll never be Leonardo DiCaprio. The truth is that the center of the universe must have been lonely no matter who you were. There was money and love and good ratings, but the weather could change at the drop of a hat and all of those precious things that made life so wonderful could be hidden behind a wall of impenetrable mist. I said to Flip Goldberg, that star who fell from the sky, “That’s a steam shower
in the bathroom,” and he said, “Fine.”
Then he asked for Lincoln Logs. It wasn’t a joke. My heart quickened. I bowed at his request, which was something I had never done before, not to anyone, and said, “At your service.”
Going down the mountain in the company truck, I felt that apple core in my back pocket, the one I’d put there earlier that morning, a lifetime ago, back when the world was dark. I found Lincoln Logs in the toy aisle of Target and wondered about the potential for a freak accident. Could someone fall and have their third eye pierced by a Lincoln Log if the Lincoln Log had been standing upright? The odds seemed pretty low. A man in Target saw me and said, “You look like you’re in that cult up there.” He blocked my path so I couldn’t get past him. I said, “Excuse me,” and he said, “I see it on your face. You’ve got the mark like all those wackos.” Then he wheeled off toward the automotive section and I headed for the checkout.
I didn’t give it a second thought, because I’d learned a long time ago that I couldn’t get wrapped up in what other people thought about me. Some of my college friends had thought I was crazy when I first went to the retreat as a guest, as in, “Are you seriously getting a hole drilled in your head?” They thought it was totally understandable for ancient times, back when flies laid eggs in cheese and ash fell from the sky, but in today’s world? “Just go to a doctor,” they said. “A specialist. A regular spa!” The truth is, I was going to end up with a hole in my head one way or another, so I figured the retreat was worth a shot.
Flip’s suite was empty by the time I got back. He was going through paperwork with Dan, which meant skimming over legal clauses that basically said, You can’t sue us, bud! I left the shopping bag on the dresser and was about to leave when I noticed a depression in the bed from where Flip had been sitting earlier. I sat in the depression and faced a print of woodpeckers on the wall.
The next day the laundry attendant, Nina, dropped her phone behind one of the washing machines. Why she had her phone out, I don’t know. Suffice it to say some people didn’t take their jobs very seriously. As she started to reach behind the washer, she saw behind it a copperhead with hellfire eyes, saying, “Come at me, bitch.” Nina got her walkie-talkie and shouted that a “serpent” was threatening her safety. I showed up, along with the bellboys. Where was security? Where was the custodian? Probably smoking by the woodshed.
Jimmy and Rodrigo fastened a pillowcase onto the end of a hook. I think it was something they had seen on TV. I didn’t watch TV, or even follow the news, but sometimes it seemed like that was all other people did. They talked constantly about the things they’d seen, read, and heard, as if absorbing media was their second full-time job and their third full-time job was regurgitating all that crap at their first full-time job. I supervised, since I was technically the most senior employee out of everyone, even though I was the same age as the bellboys and twenty years younger than Nina. She was a tiny woman in a big blue smock. She sat crouched on top of the folding counter, her arms crossed in front of her chest in an exaggerated self-hug.
I reminded everyone that we could call pest control, since this pillowcase contraption looked risky, but Jimmy and Rodrigo shut the idea down. Nina said that one of her nephews had gotten bit by a copperhead once and he didn’t go to the hospital, just sipped a bottle of rock and rye through the pain, and his hand swelled up so big that the skin ripped and you could see through to the bone. Jimmy and Rodrigo moved one of the washers so they could pin the snake behind it. Jimmy said, “Maybe we could relocate it to that faggot’s room,” and Rodrigo said, “Yeah, he deserves to get bit in the ass.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
Nina, who was still crouched on the counter like a gargoyle, said, “That man deserves worse than that.”
“Yeah,” Rodrigo said. “Maybe he’d get bit in the dick and then they’d have to
cut it off.” His brow shone with sweat. It was warm down in the laundry room, especially behind those machines spinning hot water all day, which is probably why the snake had gotten cozy. A noise came out of Nina, rising from deep within. It was a mother’s mm-hmm. Rodrigo said, “Your kids ever watch his show?” and she said, “Not anymore they don’t.”
Jimmy said “Got him” and showed us the pillowcase, heavy with snake. He raised it up to the lightbulb that hung from a chain on the ceiling. We could see the snake’s silhouette sliding around, the shadow of its flickering tongue.
I said, “You can’t talk about guests like that.” Jimmy lowered the pillowcase, disappointed, like I had ruined his big hero moment. They tried to argue that it was all over the magazines and if Flip Goldberg hadn’t been a celebrity, he would have already gone to prison, where he would’ve gotten shanked in the showers, and rightfully so, but because he was a celebrity he could afford fancy lawyers and would probably settle out of court. Nina said, “The system’s rigged,” and I said that we had to do our job with our guests to the very best of our ability, and they should all be treated equal. That was our job; our job wasn’t to judge people. We weren’t a court of law. Nina said, “What if he was a Nazi? Would you still love him then?” I didn’t have a chance to answer, because Rodrigo died laughing, saying that Flip Goldberg was Jewish.
I told them to get out, to drive that snake far away and release it.
Nina said, “The linens,” and I said, “I don’t care––get out, get out, get out.”
The snake was the same orange and brown as Flip’s Louis Vuitton bags. I had heard whispers of the scandal, but I didn’t know all the details and I hadn’t sought them out. I didn’t know if the accusations were true or not, which I guess is what made them accusations and not facts, and I had tried to explain to my co-workers that, the way I saw it, Flip was a guest like any other. He was here for a reason. He was seeking treatment. It was our job to facilitate his healing. Period. It’s not like I believed in protecting bad people, but I didn’t think it was right to judge someone for something he may or may not have done, especially when it was mostly being written about in the crap tabloids and magazines on sale in the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes the people who appeared the most powerful were really the most vulnerable.
That is why I won’t repeat the accusations here, now. It does no good to perpetuate rumors or unfounded claims, only gives breath to delusions, lies, and a fantasia of hurt. I say: Let the air go out. Breathe anew. In all likelihood, you have heard the accusations against Flip Goldberg anyway, but in case there is someone out there who hasn’t, I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us. What is weird about him, if you want to call it that, and it seems like everyone wants to call it that, is weird about all of us. I think we should examine the lives of others as if we were looking in the mirror, which requires a certain grace, an instinct for forgiveness. My co-workers were not on the same page.
I went to Dan’s office. He was staring at the computer, greasy-eyed, and he told me that he’d found something interesting. “Turns out,” Dan said, “the name Flip Goldberg was actually the name of a character he came up with in some sketch comedy group in like ’95. The early days of his career, blah, blah, blah …” His eyes scanned the computer screen. “No wonder he didn’t make Saturday Night Live. It says Flip Goldberg was a fictional dentist who wore dentures. I don’t get it. That’s funny?”
I told Dan that employees were gossiping.
He looked up from the computer and asked, “Did they say something to his face?” When I didn’t answer, he said, “All right, then.” He touched the corners of his mouth with his index fingers and curled up the corners into a smile. If I was a person capable of intentional violence, I might have perpetrated some right then and there, maybe swung a golf club at his head. Instead I saw the darts and dartboard still sitting on the floor. I picked them up and left for my cabin, which was on the retreat property, about a mile away from the central hub. I put everything in a trash barrel and burned it. Smoke rose to meet the mist. I had once heard a guest say our famous mist was like a blanket, which I guess meant beautiful, protective, swaddling. There might have been a time when I agreed, but lately the mist seemed more like it aimed to smother. I looked up and said, “You can take me if you want,” but there wasn’t anything up there, or anyone, and nothing happened.
With the barrel still smoking, I went inside and did a thing I am not proud of. I went in the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and cut myself on the inside of the thigh with a razor blade. Back when I’d been a guest at the retreat, I had met this other guest who cut herself, which was a thing I hadn’t understood back then. When I asked why she did it, she said it felt as though her sadness was leaving her when the blood came out. After I made the first cut, I waited for my sadness to leave me, and also my anger. If I hadn’t felt it work, I probably would have stopped right then and there. But I did feel a little something. So I tried it a couple more times, and then I thought, OK, maybe this works. Now I can see this for what it really was—another way of trying to heal old wounds by opening up new ones.
Five guests opted to go horseback riding: Hulda, a woman in her early fifties from Humboldt County, California, who owned a marijuana farm and told most people within ten minutes of talking that she planned to stay single for the rest of her life; Richard, a white-haired retiree from Seattle who volunteered on archaeological digs and had heard about trepanation from one of the interns; Nattapong, a young man from Thailand who had recently graduated from college and decided to abandon a career in hotel management to be an LGBTQ+ activist; and Axel and Inga, a thirty-year-old couple from Iceland, both of whom wore matching Fair Isle sweaters and suffered from mild depression.
Two guests stayed behind, even though they had technically paid for the horseback-riding trip as part of the all-inclusive price of the retreat. Our brochure claimed that it broke down to $1,300 per day, but I think that was before taxes and the online processing fee. One of the guests who stayed behind was Tomás, the pescatarian. I don’t think he would mind my saying that he wanted the treatment to let the evil out of his head. He’d told me that he had been hospitalized for manic episodes twice, because he struggled with medication adherence, and he thought trepanation might help. He’d heard about it on a podcast where armchair anthropologists talked about trepanation being an ancient surgery that was believed to help ailments such as demonic possession, babbling, drooling, glassy eyes, brain diseases, paranoia, parasites, swelling, bleeding, epilepsy, energy imbalances, fractures as a result of blunt force trauma, hard knocks, battle wounds, mania, migraines, visual disturbances, hallucinations, and a general feeling of impending doom. Tomás sent a cheek swab to a DNA company that advertised in the podcast and discovered that 22 percent of his DNA traced back to Oaxaca, Mexico. A simple Google search revealed that just outside Oaxaca City was Monte Albán, the World Heritage site where trepanned skulls had famously been discovered. This is what Tomás described as life coming “full circle.” He himself was an embodiment of the kiss sealed between then and now. I said, “Good for you, Tomás,” and arranged an appointment for him to float in the isolation tank.
The other guest to stay behind was Flip Goldberg.
Everyone who wanted to go horseback riding met for breakfast at seven o’clock, then walked to the barn together. Tomás closed himself in the isolation pod. The retreat became so quiet that I could hear clocks ticking in the great room. Liz, one of the room service attendants, came back from her daily rounds sucking on the end of her braid and saying Mr. Goldberg wasn’t in his suite, which made her nervous. I sensed something more. “What is it?” I asked. “You can tell me.” She said there were toys on the floor of his room. I handed her a toothbrush and a can of Bar Keepers Friend, saying if she was really that freaked out, she could expel some of the bad energy by scrubbing the staff bathroom.
Before I even knew it, I found myself wandering into the great room with my hands behind my back, teetering on my tiptoes, senses piqued. If anyone had caught me and asked what I was doing, I almost certainly would have scuttled off like a roach. I heard the hiss of a bottle being opened and knew where to go.
He sat on a barstool in the Brown lounge, sipping our house-brewed kombucha out of a bottle. His hair was pressed flat against his head, and he wore an old Hollywood Bowl T-shirt that had tiny holes in the collar. He was barefoot, his toes curled over the barstool footrest. He looked like he wanted something more than kombucha but didn’t have the energy to be disappointed. The Brown lounge was a self-serve deal. The name didn’t come from the wood paneling, which made the room glow, but from the Brown family, who had two seats on the board of directors. The effect of being in the lounge was intoxicating, but in the dreamy way, not the way where you’ve been drinking and have a headache and want to die when the party ends. We didn’t offer alcohol on-site anyway, since technically we were in a dry county.
This was the first time I’d seen Flip out of his suite. He’d been taking meals in his room and hadn’t joined any of the scheduled activities, neither the rafting trip on the Nantahala nor the frozen yogurt social. Knowing he was lactose intolerant, the kitchen staff had even brought out a machine called Yonanas, which turned bananas into ice cream, and then they complained when he didn’t show up. I don’t know what he did in his room alone. Every now and then I heard him talking on the phone. I never eavesdropped. I always walked away. I figured he had ventured into the Brown lounge because the place was empty. I asked if he wanted some nuts. He said, “Sure.” I stepped behind the bar and shook organic salted peanuts into a vintage Planters Peanuts dish. There was a jar of maraschino cherries behind the bar from back when a guest had requested a Shirley Temple, but, remembering the “no cherries” on the kitchen whiteboard, I pushed the jar into the shadows.
Flip didn’t touch the nuts.
He said, “I’m thinking of a Christmas special where I pull back a manhole, then go underground and find creatures living in the sewers. They seem scary at first, then we make friends.” His voice was quiet and deeper than I expected. He held up a cocktail napkin scribbled with notes. “Or maybe not,” he said. “Maybe they eat me alive.”
This was the first time he’d said anything to me that didn’t involve a request of some kind. I was excited that we might be having a real conversation, although nervous about how to proceed. Obviously, I wanted to shoot for professional, cool, a little coy, quiet. It was always better to start on the quiet side. I said, “Are the Lincoln Logs well?”
“Playing with toys helps me think of ideas,” he said, as if he thought I was making fun of him. “You should see my house.”
I smiled, but I don’t think he trusted my smile.
He asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“I know you’re an actor and a comedian. You have a kids’ show.”
“That’s what people think.”
I never would have pried into his perception of himself, but this felt like an
invitation to peel back a single layer. I asked, “Who are you, then?”
“I do the aforementioned,” he said, “but none of that happens unless something’s written, so really I’m a writer. Some would say not a very good one.”
“Isn’t that what you do, not who you are?”
“Not a bad question,” he said, speaking into the narrow opening of the bottle, his voice trapped, ricocheting in amber glass. “But no. I am a writer. I am this head, its contents and its creations, however fucked they might be.”
He pushed the napkin into the kombucha bottle, pressing with his finger until the whole thing made it through the tiny opening, then he swirled the bottle. Faint wrinkles on his face showed that he had spent much of his life smiling, but he wasn’t smiling now. The look on his face conveyed the loss of something terribly important, of something it would be too painful to put a name to. There was also a dash of self-hatred. I could tell that by the curled toes. It made me hurt inside to see him like this—not because he was a down-and-out celebrity, but because I could feel his need for healing. Maybe the thing he felt he’d lost was respect in the public eye. Or maybe it was something much less obvious. His eyes were flat brown, like the fizz had gone out of them.
I waited for him to speak, and when he didn’t, I wondered if his tolerance for company had waned and he was ready to be alone again, so I put my hands behind my back and said, “I’ll leave you to it.”
He asked, “Am I crazy for coming here?”
“You have to say that. You work here.”
He rubbed his face. His fingers, one by one, brushed over the length of his nose. It was a terrible thing to realize that I was attracted to him, because from then on I would have to consciously remind myself not to be attracted to him, not to let it show, not to do or say anything that would reveal the fermenting affection I felt. I was a professional, after all, and almost everything had to be corked.
I said, “I didn’t always work here. I was a guest before.”
He didn’t go googly-eyed or anything. He said, “I could tell,” and pointed to my third eye. He asked if it felt strange, and when I said no, you could just feel the rim of bone, his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested curiosity. I said he could touch my third eye, since he was going to get a trepanation soon enough. He made a thumbsup with his hand. Then he turned the thumbs-up sideways and touched the pad of his thumb to my forehead, where my third eye pulsed. The thumb was cool from holding the bottle.
He said, “I’d have to get makeup to cover up the dent. If I ever work again.”
The front doors opened. There were voices. The trail ride had been scheduled to last half the day, but they’d had to cut it short. Flip got off the stool without saying a word and went back to his room, silent on bare feet. I started to clean up so that there would be no evidence of Mr. Goldberg’s roaming that could inspire further gossip.
Joe came into the lounge, bowlegged and peeved. He worked down at the barn and was in charge of trail rides. His background was a mystery to me, although he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his hand. It didn’t seem to bring much luck. He looked at the jukebox, which had neon piping that shifted from red to orange to yellow, and he said, “Fucking Twizzler lights.” He ripped the plug out of the wall and said they’d encountered paparazzi in the woods. “Yeah,” he said. “Paparazzi.” He clenched his teeth together like they were a race of people he wanted deported. The story was that he’d been leading the string of horses when the first of the paparazzi jumped out from behind a tree and started taking flash photos. This spooked Joe’s horse. Joe said, “Lucky I know how to hold on, because if it’d been anybody else, they might have fallen off and bashed their brains in.” When his horse reared up, he reached over to the nearest tree and snapped off a branch. Then, when the horse dropped to all fours again, he whipped that branch across the paparazzo’s face. It made a solid white mark, completely bloodless, and the paparazzo ran off screaming before Joe could have the satisfaction of seeing the welt rise. As the injured paparazzo tore through the woods, two others broke free from their hiding places and followed the first guy like ducks in a V.
I said we should let Dan know. Joe said, “Thanks, Mom,” and I gave him a look that said “Do we have a problem now?” Because we had always gotten along OK. He said, “What am I supposed to do? Hammer a ‘no flash’ sign out there? Flip Goldberg coming up in here and trying to fuck up my trail ride. What a fake-ass name. I heard you were defending that pervert, like he’s even got the right to a defense. Why do you care so much, anyway? Why do you care at all?” He sucked his teeth and headed out the door, muttering, “Whole world’s gone to shit.”
I went to Dan’s office and said Joe was creating a hostile work environment, as evidenced by the fact that he’d stood in front of my face, close enough that I could see the wad of dip in his mouth when he talked, or rather when he yelled at me.
Dan said, “Maybe he’s got a point.”
I stood there, in my perfectly ironed uniform, my flared trousers and buttondown shirt and fleece vest. I didn’t know how I was becoming the bad employee, when I only ever tried to do the right thing. I told Dan that the right thing to do was to hire more security, because paparazzi were clearly a threat to the safety of everyone at the retreat. Surely that was an objective we could both rally behind. At the moment the retreat had only two security guards, one a middle-aged man whom everyone called Turkey Tom, because he made gobbling noises during his nonsanctioned work naps. He sat in a dark room and reviewed footage from the handful of security cameras scattered across the property. The other security guard was a kid with cystic acne. He made ten dollars an hour for reading Fight Club on repeat.
Dan complained about the cost.
I said, “Forget the cost.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“How can people expect us to help them if we can’t even keep them safe?”
Dan slammed his fists on the table. He started to laugh. I thought, Wow, he’s
losing it. Turns out I wasn’t wrong. He admitted that he’d tipped off the paparazzi in order to make a little extra money. This went against the entire ethos of the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness, which had been co-founded by Dan’s own father, his own flesh and blood. I said, “Your father would be ashamed,” and Dan drew a spiral in the air with his finger and said, “Loophole: the dead don’t feel shit.”
Having lost my own father, I could only look at him with pity. “Are you in
trouble?” I asked. “Is that what this money stuff is about?”
There were dark gray rings around his eyes. He said, “I’ve got triplets! That’s three times everything! Goddamn IVF.”
He sighed, as if all of this was too much for him. He tapped his desk. His beard thickened before my very eyes. The mist pressed against the windows and waited to see what would happen next. I said, “We have to protect the guests,” and Dan simply nodded without saying a word. He said that he had some cousins looking for work and they might be able to help out. By the end of the day, Dan had hired three new guards.
Johanna called from the spa to let me know that Flip Goldberg had requested a manicure. She said, “We’ve got an issue on our hands,” completely unaware that she had just made a pun. The “issue” was that our cosmetologist had called in sick because of a case of the dreaded double pink eye. Johanna said, “I offered to arrange a visit to the nearest salon, but he refused, because I guess he’s trying to be incognito or whatever, and then he asked me to call guest services. Which is you? I don’t know what to do. He’s like, right here.” I said I would be there in five minutes.
It was raining, so I took the golf cart. I passed one of the new security guards, who was lumbering along the muddy trail, probably going to his outpost in the woods, where, if he was lucky, there would be a roll of toilet paper in an old Christmas tin. He looked mad about having to wear a poncho. I wanted to shout, “Cheer up! You’re doing a good service!” because I was glad that my safety concerns were being taken seriously. I waved, but he didn’t wave back.
At the spa, flute music played through hidden speakers and an artificial grove of bamboo grew in the center of the lobby. Just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, there was a giant sprinkler head above the bamboo that released mist on a timer; just like in the produce aisle of the supermarket, a noise like thunder preceded the mist. I took off my shoes and put on one of the pairs of slippers that were kept in every size by the door. The air had a smooth, creamy texture that you didn’t find anywhere else on the retreat. This was owing to a filtration system that pumped in extra oxygen. After a few breaths, I already felt more alert. Edges sharpened. I walked up to the bamboo, which grew in a familial clump, and stopped in front of a ring of stones. Each stone had a word etched on its face. When you read them together, they told a story: INHALE. LIFE. SACRED. WINDOW. EXHALE.
Johanna snuck up behind me. “Should I have lied?” she asked. “Should I have told him we didn’t do manicures? Would that have been easier?”
I told Johanna that it was never OK to lie to a guest. Our job was to accommodate their wishes whenever possible, and no, Mr. Goldberg’s request was not impossible. I would perform the manicure myself.
We sat in a room tiled from floor to ceiling. There was a long sink against
one wall, reclaimed from the psychiatric ward of an old Memphis hospital, with enough room for six nurses to stand side by side and scrub up. The hardware was copper, very expensive, and there were two kinds of soap cakes: unscented, for those with sensitive skin, and lavender. The tile was baby pink, which made it easy for the mind to wander and think of bubble gum and newborns and lying naked in a bed. I tucked those images away and got to work. Even though I had never given a manicure before, I familiarized myself with the cosmetologist’s tools and decided I would learn as I went. Success was the only option.
I directed Flip Goldberg’s hands into the soaking tray. He said it had been a few weeks since his last manicure in Hawaii. It gave him a restless feeling to watch his hands revert to their natural state, “natural” meaning rough and dry, even though they felt nice to me. I didn’t say that out loud, though, because I didn’t want him to think I was sucking up. I clipped the nails first and discovered how much there was to consider, like keeping the lines clean and not cutting too far down. Then I filed and buffed. Buffing was my favorite part. By the time I got to work on the cuticles, pushing them back and clipping the excess, he spoke again. I had to be careful. The trimmers were wicked.
“You said you were a guest,” he said. “How did you end up here?”
I told him it was migraines.
He said, “It’s supposed to help?” and I knew by “it” he meant getting a hole in the head.
I explained that trepanations relieved pressure. This pressure could have
different causes, such as headaches or unwanted spirits, for example, and when you created a hole in the head, there was a way for this pressure to escape. Otherwise, your head would be a pressure cooker. And what happened to the brain and, subsequently, to the mind when the pressure built and built and built? Complete deterioration. Mush. The funny thing was that back when I’d had migraines, before my trepanation, I had always wanted a hole in my head. It was a fantasy that materialized in the throes of pain, a primitive desire that worked its way up from the subconscious, rising like a whitehead. It was not just my subconscious, either. Trepanned skulls had been found all over the world, dating back thousands of years.
The desire was collective.
I didn’t know what kind of face Flip was making while I told him all of this,
since I never dared look up and risk an inauspicious snip, but I sensed wariness. I tried to soften the whole spiel around the edges by saying, “I studied anthropology in college.”
He didn’t comment, but I assumed that he could relate to the feeling of
overwhelming pressure. His entire life must have been a performance, whether he was playing a character or just being himself, and what defined the life-asperformance was the constant presence of an audience. They were always watching, whether it was on TV or in real life. I couldn’t imagine the effect that would have on a person, so I put all of my energy into exfoliating his hands, beginning with his left hand, with the goal of scrubbing the old, the damaged, the weary, and leaving only the fresh and new. The paste smelled like crushed walnuts. Grit filled the lines on his palm. Then I exfoliated his right hand, working over the palm, the individual fingers, the back of his hand. Some of his suntanned skin scrubbed off, like tiny bits of dough rolled into snakes. Even though I felt self-conscious about my performance as a manicurist, I was giddy at my core.
Some co-workers had thought it was weird that I liked Norbert Fischer so
much, the guest who had been so ebullient, up until the dart accident, but it was only because Norbert reminded me of my father. Flip Goldberg didn’t remind me of anyone. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. It might sound crazy that I held any affection for him at all, especially considering the scandal he was wrapped up in and all the speculation about his life and what kind of man he really was, but I hardly took any of that into consideration. You can’t tell your heart not to race when it’s already racing. All you can do is deal, even if dealing means praying that the sound of your nervous blood can’t be heard pounding through your ears.
Next came the moisturizer. Flip wanted to know if the trepanation had
helped me. I said, “I haven’t had a migraine in two years.” It was true that I hadn’t experienced a headache or anything, but lately I was feeling like I wasn’t totally healed in the broader sense of the word.
“How do you know the procedure was responsible?”
It was almost as if he didn’t want to say the word trepanation. I asked, “What do you mean?”
“How do you know it wasn’t from lifestyle changes? My manager, or ex-manager, had migraines. He kept a list of triggers in his wallet, which was supposed to remind him to avoid MSG. I should’ve kept a list that told me to avoid people like him, the jackass.”
The objective truth was that I had not isolated the variable. When I decided that something had to be done about my migraines, that I couldn’t keep living with them, I had a trepanation performed and then I quit drinking. Alcohol was my trigger. Now that I’d quit drinking and had the trepanation, I no longer suffered from migraines, so it was hard to give a definitive answer. I told Flip the truth, which was that the trepanation had not harmed me in any way. His lip curled. I said, “I always assumed it was the trepanation that made the headaches stop, but I don’t know for sure.” I felt terrible admitting that—advocating the treatments we offered at the Great Smoky Mountain Retreat for Health & Wellness was, after all, my job—but
only thirty minutes earlier I had been telling Johanna that you should never lie to a guest.
I asked what color polish he preferred. For all I knew, he could have wanted a clear coat. He declined any. He said, “I’m having second thoughts.”
The copper pipes banged, as if we were being called to dinner in a castle. Flip and I looked up at the same time and saw Johanna, standing on tiptoe and watching us through the diamond-shaped window in the door. Flip said, “I don’t want to see her face again,” and I said, “Of course, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
Later, I pulled Johanna aside and asked what she possibly could have been
thinking, spying. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said. “Seriously. I mean, I saw you touching his hands and I was thinking about where his hands had been.” I couldn’t believe her stupidity. I said, “Let me see your hand,” and she held it out, doe-eyed, like What are we looking for? I shook her hand, hard, businesslike, and said, “Now you’ve caught it, too.” She wailed, then ran into the oxygen chamber and strapped on a mask.
For me, evening in the Smokies wasn’t characterized by natural wonders, such as hooting owls or star-spangled skies, but by walking home in the dark, putting on the kettle, and kicking off my clogs. My cabin was decorated in the style of a Pigeon Forge rental, which is another way of saying it was dressed like a sitcom set. The photographs hanging on the walls didn’t even represent local wildlife. It was all summer elk, white rabbits, and moonlit wolves. I guess those images came from Alaska or somewhere, I don’t know, but the cabin had been furnished when I moved
in and it was easier to leave everything alone. I had never even turned on the TV. Sometimes I used it as a mirror. The windows became mirrors at night, too. They didn’t show the outside world like they did in daytime, but reflected the inside of the cabin back at me. Lights, furniture, my face. If I had to describe my expression in the windows during the Spring II session, I might say at sea.
We were far enough into the session that guests were going through pretreatment counseling and being asked to visualize their trepanation. Soon they would be in the surgical theater, with the chair in the middle of the room, positioned directly under a skylight, and a drain in the floor. On the walls around them, a mural depicted trepanation through the ages. Their foreheads would be wiped with disinfectant. Gauze would be wound around their eyes, a layer thick enough to absorb the blood that dripped from the incision, and they would wait in their own personal darkness for the words “Now I am going to make the first cut.” Then the sound of the drill, which started at a low pitch and got higher as bit bore into bone.
The isolated variable thing nagged at me. That’s why I skipped my nightly hot chocolate and had a bottle of bourbon on the coffee table. Dry county, I know, but the bottle had been a Christmas gift from—who else?—Dan and his wife, Ivy. That tells you how well they knew me. I knew them, too. For Christmas I had given Dan a Titleist headcover for one of his drivers and Ivy a stainless steel bento box. She was a mommy blogger, and I’d heard somewhere that they liked to meal-prep.
I had devised a little experiment, which was to drink a single glass of bourbon and see what happened. I figured one glass would do it, since my tolerance was zero. Plus, when I drank back in college, I normally noticed the early signs of a migraine during the first drink anyway. You might be asking, “Idiot, why drink at all? If you knew what was going to happen, that you were going to feel terrible, so terrible that you wanted to die, why would you revert to the behavior that had made you feel that
way?” The truth is that I always hoped it might be different this time, whenever “this time” happened to be. This is the ultimate delusion, that an established pattern might randomly be broken. When you hear it in real life, you hear people say, “Things might change,” or, “Maybe it will be different next time,” even though the pattern suggests otherwise. You might be saying now, about me, “Oh, she was an alcoholic,” but that’s not the truth. I just wanted to hang out like a normal person.
This is the story:
Some friends and I had gone to an on-campus screening of A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo and then for drinks after, where we talked about the disgraced anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the ethics of ethnography. The bartender came over to our table, shouted “No sniveling” into a megaphone, then went to pour us a round of shots with blackberry liqueur and vodka. The shots were called “Zipperheads,” a name that I can’t be blamed for, since I didn’t come up with it. My head started to hurt, so I went home and drank water and took my prescribed migraine medication, Topamax, which didn’t help. I managed to fall asleep. I would not say that I “woke up” later, because it wasn’t as gentle as that, a coy fluttering of eyelids at first light; no, it was more like being cut out of sleep, as a baby is cut out of the womb. I was brought back into the pain, but it was a pain so bad that it almost didn’t register as a feeling; it was more like another dimension of existence. I stumbled through the apartment, looking for a gun so I could shoot myself, as if there was a gun in a drawer somewhere. There wasn’t. I tried to summon a gun by saying, “Gun, gun, gun,” which woke up my roommate. She called 911. This landed me in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. They pumped me with drugs and fluids. After twenty-four hours, I was back to normal. Mostly. My mental status had to be evaluated before they would discharge me from the hospital. They asked, “Do you remember talking about black holes? And singing, ‘Cock it and pull it’?” I lied when they asked if I was currently suicidal, even though I knew I’d have to kill myself if I continued experiencing migraines like that. My father was the one who suggested trepanation. He had a friend in the linguistics department at Auburn who’d gone to the retreat. “Highly recommended,” he said. Off I went. My experience in the surgical theater? Terrifying, but delicious—because I had nothing to lose. I remember the relief that came once the drilling stopped, which meant I had a hole in my head. I had done something terrifying and survived. No more headaches. The retreat changed me, too. I considered the full picture of my health and wellness. I quit drinking. I focused on my breath. My father said he was happy for me, that all he’d ever wanted was for me to be happy, which is a stupid thing to hear in somebody else’s story, but when it’s your own story it’s enough to make you cry. My father ended up dying in a lecture hall, in front of an audience of graduate students. At least I had the chance to feel sad. I don’t think my mother did. The bureaucracy of death was, in some ways, no different from the bureaucracy of being department chair.
I didn’t want to be home after that. I didn’t want to continue with my education, either. So I’d gotten a job at the retreat and had been there ever since.
I sipped the bourbon and felt the trail of warmth go down my throat and into my stomach. I kept sipping, and it started to make me nervous. The whole point was to see if I was going to get a migraine, and yet a migraine was the thing I was afraid of getting, mainly because migraines hurt but also because if I got a migraine, it would mean that I had not been cured by trepanation.
I kept drinking anyway. Ever since that dart had hit Norbert Fischer in the third eye, I had been feeling disenchanted with the retreat. A crack had formed and doubt had slipped in, like a cat.
Once I finished the glass of bourbon, the experiment was over. I sat there and looked at the wall, trying to decide what I felt. The wall was blank, but slowly Flip Goldberg’s face began to fill it. A halo grew around him, fuzzy and gold. I knew it wasn’t a halo, but an aura, which was a precursor to a migraine. That was enough for me. Fully spooked, I called it. I went into prevention mode, taking the loading dose of ibuprofen, drinking a glass of water, and then having a hot shower, since that regimen used to help. I changed into pajamas and determined, with immense relief, that the pain was not getting any worse, only hovering at “annoying.” It was scary to think how close I might have been to a migraine, but in a way, it was scarier to think that I had not been entirely cured, when I had believed I had been for so long. I didn’t think the trepanation had done any damage, but not doing harm is a far cry from helping. People wanted an endorsement. They wanted the brochure to say “It works!” not “It can’t hurt!”
I was about to go to bed when a security guard knocked on the door. It was one of the new guards Dan had hired. My initial reaction was that something terrible must have happened, like Flip Goldberg had been kidnapped by paparazzi and was being held for ransom. I was ready for anything, because earlier that afternoon, once the rain had stopped, two stoned middle schoolers had been found hiding in a hollowed-out log. They were fans of Flip’s TV show and carried pictures of him that they’d printed out from the internet. The pictures were sealed in gallon-size Ziploc bags to keep from getting wet. When asked what they hoped to accomplish, they said they wanted autographs. When asked how they knew Flip’s location, they pretended not to hear the question.
I opened the door to see what it was all about, crossing my arms over my pajama top. We must not have had any spare security uniforms at the retreat, because this guy wore a silk bomber jacket and a black baseball cap with security embroidered on the front. He said, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I asked if everything was all right. He said, “Oh, yeah, everything’s fine. Everything’s good. Not to be weird, but I saw you having a drink through the window and wondered if you wanted to have another one with me? It’s kind of cold out tonight.” He stamped his feet on the ground, as if to emphasize his point. Women know this moment, the moment where you think, Oh, come on. I told him I was going to bed and started to close the door. He blocked the door with his boot.
“Did I mention I’m Dan’s cousin?” he said. “I should have mentioned that. People call me Ozzy because I like to rock. Dan said he was shorthanded with security, so I’m doing him a favor. Crazy about those kids in the log earlier, right?”
I told him it was late, which is as nice, as accommodating, as gentle as you can be in that situation, and he sort of laughed. “Let me come in and I won’t tell Dan you were drinking. I know it’s a dry county and employees aren’t supposed to drink.”
That might have been true, but the fine print in the employee handbook wasn’t worth getting assaulted over. I said, “If you don’t step away, I’m going to call the police.”
He held up his hands, a gesture of surrender.
“Forget it,” he said. “No worries. Dan just mentioned you were the one who liked that creep so much, so I thought you might want to role-play and let me eat a cherry out of your ass.”
I must have known all along that something would happen with the accusations against Flip Goldberg, but I didn’t know when it would happen or if he would still be in my care. The two options, if you were trying to be simple about it, were either that everything would explode, which I guess meant he would end up going to court and being found guilty, like all of my co-workers wanted, or that the accusations would disappear. True, if the scandal died a quiet death, Flip’s reputation would still be tarnished. Whenever the general public saw his face or heard his name, they would always think, There’s that guy who did that thing, but at least he would be free. I never believed Flip Goldberg was a bad man. I’m not sure I even believed he was a sick man, and I certainly didn’t believe on a philosophical level that being sick made you bad. So I was glad that the quiet death happened, not the explosion. I was also surprised that I was there, or at least in the vicinity, to witness it.
It had been a busy morning. Axel and Inga’s toilet was clogged. Hulda asked that all the light bulbs be removed from her suite, because she thought natural light would ease her into a headspace fit for trepanation. “I know what you’re going to say,” she said. “Leave the light bulbs and just don’t use them. That’s missing the point. I want the temptation removed entirely.” Nattapong wanted his clotheswashed and folded. Richard needed pens. I delivered a package of black pens. He said he preferred blue. A mysterious stain appeared on the velvet settee, which my co-workers blamed on Flip Goldberg, even though there was no evidence to back up the claim. The stain acted like marmalade, which screamed “Richard” to me. There were always marmalade jars in his trash when I emptied it, plus X-shaped stains on the hand towels in his room, as if he were always wiping a sticky finger on them. I wanted to tell Dan about the encounter with his cousin and order that the creep bedisposed of, figuratively speaking, but I never found the time.
Then Flip Goldberg came to the front desk. “In private,” he said to me, and I urged him into the service corridor, which was empty at that time, except for a piece of limp broccolini that lay between us on the linoleum. He said his reception was terrible. He was trying to answer an important phone call, but the call kept dropping. I asked if he could use the landline in his room, but he didn’t believe the line was private. I said, “I can assure you, sir, that no one listens in,” and he said, “Not good enough.” His eyes were glassy. He glanced at the broccolini and his toes curled in his flip-flops. I offered to set up a videoconference in the business center, which I could seal off using caution: wet floor signs. “Is it 1999?” he said. “I didn’t ask for a videoconference. I asked for a phone call.”
I told him that I understood completely and I could offer two options: we could drive thirty minutes to a Waffle House parking lot acclaimed for its good reception, or we could go to a fire lookout that sat on retreat property and had a clear shot to the nearest cell tower.
Flip picked the second choice. His nerves must have upset his stomach, because I smelled farts as we hopped in the golf cart, and then luckily the breeze whisked them away. I couldn’t remember exactly where the fire lookout was, so we drove around for about ten minutes until we arrived at an electric fence I had never seen before. On the ground, I spied a circle of downy feathers, with a bird head at the center. The rest of the bird was gone. Flip said, “Tell me you know where we’re going,” and I said, “We’ll be there momentarily, sir. My apologies.” Flip was pale. We backtracked, and I found the turn that I’d missed before. The fire lookout was not entirely abandoned. Someone sat on the bottom of the stairs. I said, “Let me see who it is,” afraid that it might be Dan’s cousin. The figure was short and squat, though, and wearing a black polo that I recognized. Flakes of skin dusted the shoulders. It was Turkey Tom, one of the original security guards. I said, “What are you doing here, Tom?” and he said, “I could ask you the same thing.” He said one of the new guys had boasted about his computer chops, so Dan offered to let him try overseeing the wall of security footage, while Tom was sent into the woods like a horse to pasture. He said, “This is a young man’s job, standing in the elements.” I knew it must have been a big change from his usual position, with the comfy swivel chair, the heat vent blowing on his feet, and the nearby kitchen where he could sneak muffins.
“Sorry about all that,” I said. “I had my own problems with one of the new guys.”
Flip was waiting in the golf cart, his trifecta deteriorating by the minute, and I felt bad for keeping him waiting. I pointed to a big tree about twenty yards away and said, “Would you mind standing there for a while, Tom? I’ve got a guest trying to make a phone call. It’s private.”
He looked around. “This is as private as it gets.”
“Well, OK,” Tom said. “Good reception up here. Nice view, too.” He pointed to the fire lookout and said, “I had to climb up there earlier to make sure paparazzi weren’t hiding out. The door was unlocked and the place was a mess, so my heart was going pretty fast.”
“Secure?” I asked.
He picked up his thermos of coffee and started walking to the tree. He gave a little wave.
I told Flip that I would be waiting at the bottom of the tower. A security guard was on standby. Before making his ascent, I thought he might say thank you or give a meaningful nod. Instead he said, “How can it be this hard to make a motherfucking phone call? Jesus fuck, this place is stuck in the Dark Ages.”
I knew he was under stress, so I tried not to let it get to me. The fire lookout was much taller than I remembered, even though I’d only seen it once before, when I was new to the job and had been exploring the property on a day off. I’m not good at guessing heights, but it might have been a hundred feet off the ground. There were two flights of steps, with a landing in between, where I suspected Turkey Tom had taken a break so he could catch his breath before continuing the rest of the way. The lookout itself looked like one big room, with a wraparound balcony. It would have been a little kid’s dream if it had been erected for the purpose of play and not spotting potentially deadly fires. Flip walked up the first flight of stairs, paused on the landing to check his phone, then walked up the second flight of stairs. Here he stood on the balcony, head bent, and turned in nervous circles. After a moment, he seemed to have collected himself and then went inside the room at the top of the lookout, slamming the door behind him. I guess he wanted that extra layer of privacy. I watched everything from below. I could have cried.
I waited in the golf cart for a long time. I worried that Flip was getting terrible news, like he’d have to go back to Los Angeles for a deposition or a hearing or even the beginning of a trial. Like I said before, I didn’t know about the state of his affairs. I had been out of the loop for the past two years. When I came to the retreat, I’d quit reading the news and watching TV, since it was part of my quest to cut out noise. Only since Flip Goldberg’s arrival had I begun to have tinges of curiosity about him, moments when I was tempted to tune back in and google everything from “Flip Goldberg scandal” to “Flip Goldberg shirtless.” Ultimately, though, I couldn’t do it. I was afraid of what I might find. Worse, I was afraid the evidence against him might be convincing. Maybe at the center of all this is a question that I have difficulty confronting. A question that makes me embarrassed, sick. The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile? I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t want to be the answer. So I never gave myself the opportunity to really know, believe, or acknowledge that he could have been one. In this way, I protected myself from becoming a woman who liked a pedophile. I’ve said before that I believe in examining the lives of others as if looking in the mirror, with the same kindness and gentleness that we hope to afford ourselves. I saw myself in him, as any human can see themselves in any other human, and I said to myself, in the mirror, “Please be good.”
Eventually, Flip came out on the balcony and leaned against the wooden rail. I got out of the golf cart and craned my neck to see him. When I looked up, my lips must have been parted, because one of his tears fell into my mouth. It was cold from falling. He leaned on his elbows, hands clasped together, head forward. This would have been the moment when the scandal passed out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead, a vapor making its way from one room to another. It was a quiet passing, because the rest of the world didn’t know about it yet. All of that would come with time, but just then, at that moment, it was only a nearly imperceptible exchange of energy: as the scandal left, so returned Flip’s life.
I waited for a minute, giving him time.
Then I said, “Is there anything I can do?”
He squinted at me in the silver light. Maybe it only looked like he was squinting because his eyes were swollen. Over by the tree, Turkey Tom had fallen asleep. Flip said, “Come up here a minute.”
A hundred stairs later, I saw mountaintops breaching the mist. It felt like there could not possibly be a higher place on earth. Flip appeared unsteady, with his head bobbing and the silver glimmering at his temples. I could not ask what had happened, even though it was the human impulse. What I heard later was that his lawyers had settled out of court, for an amount of money in the millions, and the case had been dropped. The phone call taken at the fire lookout in Tennessee was the moment he found out that his life was not over. I would have thought such good news would invigorate him, would make his strength return, but the opposite happened. In the midst of the scandal he had been at his strongest. The scrutiny made him tough. It was the only way to survive the judgment of an entire country, a dark sea of nameless, faceless people who had no problem cursing him and his mother and the day he was born. He couldn’t bear to be seen as weak during this time, but the second he realized the battle was over, he grew frail. Tears streaked with tears. He was his most animal, his most fetal, his most ancient self.
We went inside the lookout and Flip sat on an army cot in the corner. Beside the cot was a bookshelf, with guides to the birds and wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains. Old papers lay scattered across the dusty floor, maps among them, as well as a guide to operating a flare gun. I stood in the middle of the room, upright, hands behind my back, and looked at the floor as politely as I could.
He said, “I can’t get a trepanation.”
He leaned forward and put his hands on the back of his neck. His voice was more muffled that way. He was twitching all over, legs bouncing, fingers tapping. I wondered if his brain was trying to remind his body that it was still alive.
“There’s no reason to do it anymore,” he said. “People said it would look good in case there was a trial. Like I was seeking help.”
I knew that in order to protect Flip Goldberg, I couldn’t make the argument that he should have the procedure. Before this, I probably would have tried. I would have thought I was doing the right thing by convincing him of the wonders of this place, but I had recently grown up a little. That was a truth I hadn’t known before, or hadn’t been willing to accept—that I wasn’t finished growing up, even though I was twenty-three years old. I’d felt plenty old. I had all that knowledge in my head from growing up with anthropologists for parents, visions of temples, pyramids, middens, markets, huts, and graves. When I had migraines and my head was bursting with hallucinations of outer space, of black holes, it felt as though I had the entire universe inside me, not just one measly planet. When I had the trepanation, everything could pass through me. The delusion had been that I was complete.
So I didn’t try to convince Flip.
I said, “OK.”
He sat up and looked toward the ceiling, where the shells of insects dangled from spiderwebs. The whites of his eyes were pink. He said, “I’m empty anyway. If I got the hole, I don’t think anything would come out. It’s taken everything from me. There’s nothing in here.” He knocked on his chest with a fist. “I should be relieved.”
I said, “Now you can rest.”
He nodded, looked through the windows, and then took a deep breath. He said, “I can try to sleep on the plane. I don’t think I will.”
On the way back to the retreat, he said that he’d already called his personal assistant, who said she could have a helicopter at the retreat the next morning. Flip said that wasn’t fast enough. His assistant found a flight to Los Angeles out of McGhee Tyson Airport. He asked me to take him to the airport and that we keep it quiet. He said that his personal assistant would be calling the head of operations, Dan, to announce that he, Mr. Goldberg, would not in fact be moving forward with the trepanation. To all of this I said, “Yes, sir.”
I escorted him back to his suite, where he packed his things, and then we took the service exit to the company truck. On the drive to the airport, he kept his eyes covered with his hands, and I wondered if he was replaying the phone call in his head, or thinking of all the things that would come next. I could have interrupted the silence, saying, “Hey, this has been crazy getting to be around you, and I’m sorry to see you go, since we’ll probably never see each other again, but just know that I never felt the way everybody else felt, and I never trash-talked you once.” I couldn’t say that, though. He needed the silence more than I needed to fill it.
I gave Flip a ten-minute warning so he could put on his disguise. He dug through his Louis Vuitton bags, pulling out a Puma track jacket and a Yankees baseball cap, which I assumed had been purchased for the express purpose of traveling in disguise. His aviators had been hooked in the front of his shirt. He put them on, along with everything else. It probably made him look like a regular person from a distance, but up close the disguise was betrayed by the exceptional quality of his leather bags and, beneath the track jacket, the silk of his bowling shirt, which looked like it had been snagged from the wardrobe mistress of a gangster movie. I stopped in front of the arrivals area, where he got out, slinging one bag over his shoulder and carrying the other in his hand. When a guest leaves, it’s typical to say something like “I hope you had a wonderful stay” or “Please come back again,” but neither of those applied here. Without any parting words, Flip Goldberg stepped through the sliding doors and into the airport, where he would in turn navigate through other people, other travelers, on his way to the counter, where he would give, I presumed, his real name. I liked that the last time I saw him was from behind, just like how I first saw him when he walked down the trail that day.
Dan was furious.
I said, “He didn’t want the trepanation.”
Dan said, “Well, it looks bad for us.”
“How is that?”
He said that if guests left before getting a trepanation, it made it look like we had done something wrong. People would talk. They would assume our facilities were unclean or the staff was unprofessional. They might think we had BO or spinach in our teeth. Dan said a bad pattern was emerging. First, Norbert Fischer in the Spring I session, then Flip Goldberg in the Spring II session. What would happen next?
Dan said, “You certainly haven’t helped the situation.”
I said, “Maybe I should leave then, if I suck so bad.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I will.”“It might be for the best.”
“You can’t resign.”
“Your job isn’t important enough. You’re not high up enough in the chain. You can quit, but you can’t resign.”
“I still resign.”
“No,” he said. “You quit.”
I stood up from the wine-colored chair that sat in front of his desk. I said, “Here’s a hint, Dan. You should get rid of those Sea-Monkeys.” The Sea-Monkey kit still sat there, unopened. “I’m saying this as a parting gift. You’re going to make somebody mad one day and they’ll dump those shrimp into your coffee. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve always had the willpower to stop myself from actually doing it. Somebody else might not. So it’s better if you remove the temptation.”
When I left his office, I knew that my time at the retreat was officially over. I would have to move out of the cabin, since it was on retreat property, and the unexpected discovery I made when packing up my things was that I owned almost nothing. I had some clothes, some pots and pans, that sort of thing, but everything else had been there when I arrived. My stuff fit easily into my car, and my presence in the world felt very slight, but in a pleasing way. I hadn’t spent much money in the past two years and had been able to save a good chunk of my income, which came to a total of $57,600 that was spread across a checking account and a savings account. It seemed logical that I could go back home before I determined what to do next.
Before I left, I wanted to visit Norbert Fischer in the hospital. I hadn’t heard any updates on his condition lately, which was probably Dan’s intention, and it felt like a loose end. It would always be a loose end.
Because of patient confidentiality laws, I couldn’t receive a status update on Norbert Fischer’s condition or find out his room number. I told the nurse that I understood, even though it was disappointing, because I had visions of feeding him banana pudding if he was awake, or, if he was still in the coma, trimming his fingernails. On my way out, I got turned around in the hospital. I was wandering down a hallway when I saw an old woman in a wheelchair. There was vomit on the floor and several gurneys pushed to one side. I looked for someone who could tidy up, but this old woman was the only soul in town. I asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” and she said, “Anything?” and I said, “Name it.” She’d had some kind of procedure that had given her two black eyes, or maybe she’d been in an accident, I couldn’t tell. Air whistled through a gap in her front teeth when she spoke. She said, “How about more of that apple juice with ice?” I didn’t know where the apple juice was, but I told her I would find it and be right back.Continue reading
We stopped on the side of the path for two men on their way back to town. One had leathery skin and thick barbell earrings. The other was shorter, wearing a bright neon green Speedo, his biceps banded by tribal tattoos fading into blues and grays.
“Hi, love,” they said. And to me: “You must be John’s boy.”
“That’s me,” I responded, turning to John with a fake smile.
“Heading back from the beach so soon?” he asked, and they began to talk about who else was in town, where everyone was staying, and what parties were where that weekend. The three of them massaged one another’s shoulders, standing close together in a triangle. His friends were also in their fifties, and all three of them had been coming to Provincetown, year after year, since they were my age—or at least these were the gaps I filled in as I took in everything they were saying, grasping only fragments of how the people and places they spoke of made up their lives.
Occasionally, as they spoke, John shot a glance over his shoulder, to where I stood behind him to block the sun from my face. And I understood that he wanted me to see him being kind, funny, that he was bringing his most charming self out from wherever he kept it from me, for the pleasure and entertainment of others.
This is what I’m withholding from you, his face told me.
The beach, when we reached it, was empty. A single man held a yoga pose in front of the frothing waves. He looked weathered and bronzed, a statue. I wanted to see other men and I wanted them to see me. This was, after all, Provincetown, where legions of men before me had come to drink and dance and fuck, to be among their kind. I had but two days left.
“I thought there would be more people,” I said to John.
“They gather down that way.” He pointed to where the coast bent back behind the line of wind-shorn trees. “Go find them if you like.”
He slipped out of his trunks and T-shirt. His orange-hued skin against the blue of the sky, the blue of the slow-churning waves, was gorgeous. A bestiary of tattoos decorated his body: an Egyptian eagle spread its wings across his back, a blue whale and a howling wolf stared each other down across his thighs, and a bear brandished its fangs between his dark nipples.
“But I, darling, am going for a swim.”
John retrieved his wetsuit from his drawstring bag and snapped it in the wind, the whole black thing unfurling in his hands like a shadow. His fat, pendulous balls dangled as he raised his feet into the slots of the suit. Admiring the flourish of graying pubes, where I’d buried my face countless times, I crawled to him on hands and knees. I rolled the suit up his pale thighs, over the small mound of his hairless belly, around his freckled shoulders, where the skin was thin and shiny as scales. When I finished zipping him up, I already longed to see his naked body again. His hands, groping my ass, drew me into him. He lined up his legs with mine and pushed my feet with his into the sand. I adopted the shape and rhythm of his breath, our bodies in accord. And then he chuckled, the firm curve of his bulge jabbing my stomach. His piss, as he went inside his wetsuit, flowed warm between us.
Some men climbed over the ridge behind me. I waved and bantered with them, the first group I’d seen since John left.
I could find them beyond the trees, they said, if I got lonely.
“My man,” I shouted over the wind, pointing at the sea. “I’m waiting for him.”
When they were gone, I rubbed the erection that he had cruelly left me with through my trunks. An hour passed and there was no sign of him. It was impressive. I knew he swam at the Chinatown Y, and the Rockaways when the weather permitted, but I hadn’t expected that a man of his age could swim for this long.
When two hours passed, I wondered what would happen if he went into shock in the open water. He was old enough that a heart attack wasn’t out of the question. Or what if he was stung by a jellyfish? Attacked by a shark? What if he never returned? I would have to call the cops. I would have to file a report and contact his friends and family. Would I speak at his funeral? Would I grieve like a widow? But before all that, I would have to bike into town to get cell service, and I wasn’t even sure I knew the way back. I scanned the coast. It was too early to worry, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had to, as if I could stave off all the terrible things that might happen to John by anticipating them. The light was shattering in long shards over the waves. I closed my eyes and lay back down with my arms over my head to tan my palest skin.
Another hour passed. He should have warned me he planned to be gone for so long. Was this normal? How far could he really swim? I stood to touch the water. It was cold. The temperature was dropping and the tide beginning its return. I moved our things farther up the dune and watched the swirling pools form in the sand in front of me. The men who had earlier invited me to find them behind the trees were leaving with their fold-up chairs and empty coolers. Earlier they had noticed me. Now their eyes swept past me like I was part of the scenery.
By the time another hour had passed, I had thought of several scenarios to explain his disappearance. Either he had died in the water, or he had found old friends swimming, or, worse, he had run into an old fling and they were getting reacquainted in the bushes. The sun and the moon shared the sky. Tiny silver fish in the pools danced like starlings. I didn’t have any water left and my stomach rumbled for food. When I climbed to the top of the dune, there was no sight of him. Behind me, over the marsh we’d crossed, the water was rising, already ankle deep.
I was furious when I saw the speck of him wading through the waves. John, studded in gems by what was left of the light, stood up on the sandbar. He unzipped the top of his wetsuit and the bear with its glinting teeth glared at me.
What I had known best, all of my life, was the power of silence. I would say nothing for him to hold on to. I would begin to disappear now. Before he had time to change, I climbed to the top of the dune with my arms crossed, my shoes and bag in my hands. Below me, he hopped on one foot, then the other, nothing in his face acknowledging how long he’d left me waiting.
His body swooshed through the waist-high water as he caught up with me. I held my shoes and towel over my head to keep them dry. Swift little things slithered past my legs below the water. I followed what seemed like a path between the shoots of marsh grass. The tune he whistled behind me bled into the night and I could almost, if I were another person, believe that everything was all right with us. He put a hand around my neck, his fingers kneading their message into my skin: I’m leading you.
“You always do this,” he said.
This will be over soon, I told myself. Don’t cry. You will not cry.
“You shut up inside of yourself.”
His hand drove me forward. The water broke like glass against my ribs. My arms trembled. I couldn’t tell when I had begun to shake. The sun smoldered behind the line of trees, indicating the road to town was still in the distance. If I could catch the ferry back to Boston, I would go home tonight. I would never return to Provincetown. I would never see him again.
“You’re not even here right now.”
In a moment, without thinking, I sneezed. It was the first sound I’d made in hours. My spit in the wind freckled my cheeks.
“Fucking gross, Santiago.”
My name echoed behind me. I went so still I could see the water wrinkling out from my body. He let go of my neck, and when I turned around he brushed his face with the backs of his hands, as if something of what I had could get into him.Continue reading
So first I wanted to start with a little bit about your background. You’re from Italy, but you live in Germany and “The Drama Club” is written in English. How did you come to decide to write in English, and would you say your Italian upbringing still influences your writing (outside of the setting, of course)?
I’ve been writing stories in English for quite some time, since I was fifteen years old. Back then, my reason for switching from Italian to English was mostly pragmatic: I’d been writing fanfictions in Italian and posting them online, but I understood quite soon that only if I wrote in English would my stories actually be read by someone. However, I was still writing my own original stories in Italian. Then, after moving to Germany, I started to speak English daily and to read almost exclusively in English, and I joined a local Creative Writing group of (mostly) non-native speakers who write in English. Eventually, I decided to stop writing in Italian altogether: I’ve come to realize that English is the language that best suits my voice as a writer, and I now embrace the challenges of writing in a non-native language as part of what makes the process of writing so exciting.
To answer your second question: growing up in Italy, I think I’ve developed a fascination for ruins, emptying towns, abandoned buildings, collapsing infrastructures, etc. which shows through much of my writing. It emerges quite clearly in “The Drama Club,” but I find myself returning to similar images even when I’m writing stories that aren’t necessarily set in Italy.
The setting of Italy is obviously very important to this story, and you spend a lot of time describing both the physical surroundings of the characters and the culture in which they are living. Would you say you drew more from your own childhood surroundings, or were you more focused on the current Italy in which young people live?
I definitely drew a lot from the physical surroundings of my own teenage years, which I entered right as the economic crisis struck, so I grew up surrounded by images of factories, offices and shops shutting down. Besides, in my hometown there are plenty of unfinished or unutilized buildings and not many places where young people can hang out, just like in the town where the kids of my story live. A few years have passed, but the empty and unfinished buildings are still there, and not enough new businesses have opened to replace the failed ones; besides, many people in their late twenties still live at home with their parents because they can’t find a well-paid job, and if you enter any tobacco shop in Italy, you’ll find someone obsessively playing the lottery or using a slot machine. So, yes, I’d say that the town I describe is a town that could exist in current Italy.
Even though Italian culture is at the heart of this story, there’s also a lot of conversation around American culture as well as that of other countries, like environmental careers in Australia and British artistic figures like Shakespeare and Banksy. There almost seems to be an unmoored nature to the world the teens inhabit. What would you say is the ultimate purpose of this melding of cultures, and do you think it speaks to the current cultural state Italy finds itself in now?
I didn’t think of it as a “melding of cultures” as I was writing this story, actually, because to me American popular culture is just popular culture: in Italy—but I guess the same could be said about many countries outside the US—we are constantly exposed to American movies, music etc. so American culture shapes our own tastes and interests to the point that it is experienced as our own popular culture. The same could be said about Shakespeare or Banksy: they’re artists about whom most people know just as much (and perhaps more) as about Italian artistic figures. At the same time, we’re sometimes keenly aware of the foreign origin of American culture, especially when we compare contemporary American and Italian cultures: in these cases, I see lots of people (especially young people) lamenting, for instance, that Italian music or movies are not as good as American ones, so there is a widespread sense of inadequacy, I’d say, when such comparisons are drawn. But there are also many young people who prefer Italian popular culture, so it’s not easy to make broad generalizations. I can only say that, as a person who’s always been much more up to date on (and enamored of) American contemporary culture than on Italian contemporary culture, it came naturally to me to represent young Italians who are fascinated with cultures coming from outside the country and who make these cultures their own.
Within the context of the story, American culture is perceived by the kids mostly as familiar, though it also introduces them to realities that they won’t get to experience directly (like drama clubs), thus leading their expectations about growing up to be disappointed. There is a discrepancy between the stories they grew up with and the reality of their own lives, yet they keep wanting more than what is available to them in the “here and now.” In this sense, their fascination for cultures coming from other places can be seen as stemming from the desire to live different lives from the ones they’re “stuck in.” Similarly, Australia sounds to the freckled girl like a country that would give her the opportunities she lacks in her town (and in Italy at large). In Italy we grow up being told that we must move abroad because our country has nothing to offer to us, and some of us are quite young when we decide we’ll leave sometime in the future, often without even trying to look for a job in our own country. I know something about that myself, since I moved to Germany before even getting my Master’s degree.
Similarly, the story seems to exist in a kind of in-between space. The characters explore an unfinished theater that they’re not convinced won’t be completed one day, they live in a town hovering in the despairing space between economic collapse and reconstruction, and even the ending leaves the audience unsure of the fate of the freckled girl. What made you decide to locate your story in so precarious a place, and how did you approach helping your characters navigate through it?
As I mentioned before, I’m drawn to precarious places, perhaps because I grew up and still live in an era defined by precariousness: it’s hard to find or keep a well-paid job; there is a widespread feeling that the younger generations will be worse off than the previous ones; moreover, climatologists predict a much more dreary future, a prediction that goes against all narratives of progress that have dominated Western culture for quite some time and that represent, I would say, an “unkept promise,” much like the theater in my story. In this regard, I guess I tend toward writing uncertain endings because they reflect the uncertain, hazardous nature of this era. On the other hand, though, my characters are teenagers who cultivate their own ambitions and dreams, which implies that, at least when it comes to their personal lives, they believe in the possibility of a future that will be better than the present. This is what helps them navigate the gloomy reality they inhabit. Their attachment to the theater is rooted, partly, in a delusion, though it also constitutes an act of resilience, if not of rebellion against those prophecies of doom, which is why I had them break the rules and trespass the construction site, so that they could make use of the theater and try to realize their aspirations in some way and keep dreaming against all odds. However, I also wanted to show their failure at seizing the opportunities that lie in front of their eyes, and for this reason I wrote about a love story that ends miserably before being given a chance to begin.
Growing up is a lot about carving out your own space in the world, and your story explores this quite a bit. Do you think teens nowadays tackle this problem in different ways from when you were a teen, or do you think there is a kind of universal route that we all take?
I think finding or creating your own space in the world involves a lot of exploring and experimenting and going against what you think is expected of you. This might be a more or less universal route most young people take, though of course in practice different kids from different times and places find their own specific ways of carving out their own space. What was already true when I was a teenager, and is even more true now, I suppose, is that the Internet offers alternative spaces for kids to experiment with their identities and be themselves when they lack such spaces in the physical world; besides, on the Internet, kids are exposed to plenty of diverse subcultures and ways of living, and this influences how young people come to define themselves and what they desire also outside of the Internet.
I particularly loved the way you touched on the theatricality of being a teenager. Oftentimes your characters seem to be performing for each other, or even themselves. Was this influenced by the setting of the theater, or did you choose the setting of the theater in order to showcase this teenage behavior?
I decided upon the setting early on in the outlining process, whereas it was only when I was actually writing the story that I found myself adding details pointing to the theatricality of being a teenager. Beside being a common teenage behavior, I also see it as a specific response to the characters’ peculiar condition: in a context in which young people’s desires and frustrations are invisible or neglected, it is somewhat empowering for the kids to give vent to the full intensity of their emotions or even to simply feel seen.
There’s a bit of a shocking turn that comes at the end of the story, which is colored by violence that disrupts the safe haven of the theater and ushers in a new reality for the teens. Do you think this is indicative of the way that their childhood ends (i.e. bluntly and without warning) or do you think the characters in your story still have a ways to go before they give up their youthful outlook?
A bit of both. I see the freckled girl as the most disillusioned kid, so at the end, when she falls and thinks that it’s a good thing, after all, that the theater will be demolished, to me this is indicative of how she’s now seeing the theater the way adults see it, that is, as something that has no future. Similarly, the American boy is confronted with a tragedy that definitely marks the end of a phase in his life. At the same time, however, I see the indigo girl as someone who wouldn’t give up her hopeful outlook entirely, despite being faced with the harsh reality. I like to think that after the story ends, she’ll become even more resolved on imagining and building toward a better world for herself and other young people like her.
Lastly, I have to ask—were you a theater kid growing up?
I took part in many school plays as a child, but then there was no drama club in my middle school and high school, so I stopped acting, unfortunately, and lost interest quite soon. Now that I’ve rediscovered my love for the theater and that I’ve been reading a lot about the experiences of American kids in drama clubs, I wish I’d had the chance to become a theater kid myself. I guess the kids in my story and I have that much in common!Continue reading
If you’re looking for the kids, and it’s a Friday afternoon during the school term, look no further than the theater down Risorgimento Martyrs Street, close to the on-ramp to the highway leading to Rome. Rain or shine, ninety-four pages left to study for a biology test on Monday or not, they will be sitting in the orchestra anywhere between the first and the fifth row, and always at the center, of course, because that’s where they can get the best view of the stage, even though some of them will actually have their backs turned to it and their gaze directed toward their friends. After all, no play has ever been performed here, no actor has ever stepped onto this stage to enthrall an audience with his interpretation of Hamlet, so the five kids might as well watch the dramas unfolding among themselves. One day the girl with indigo streaks in her hair laments the tragic loss of her most beloved book to a leak in the ceiling, her voice sonorous, her gesticulation wild, while a ray of the setting sun spotlights the fierceness of her expression. Another day the boy with an American-sounding nickname remonstrates about the frequent (and never announced) cancellation of the buses heading to the capital, and his monologue is echoed by a chorus of “Yeah,” “I know, right?” and “Fuck this town” that fades out as the sunlight dims. Some days, instead, it’s a screen that captures their attention, and they all cluster around the kid holding the phone and laugh at a comedy sketch, saying “That’s you” every time a character acts just like one of them. The “you” chuckles the loudest and agrees. “That’s me.”
To be fair, the kids do not always remain sprawled on the tiers. There are afternoons when they climb over the brick parapet into the boxes like restless monkeys, others when they roam about the building in stunned silence, taking in the geometric pattern of the truss upholding the paneled roof, staring at the scaffolding towering at the back of the stage. Like foreign tourists visiting the Colosseum and trying to imagine what it looked like in the past, the kids try to imagine what the theater would look like in the future. Rows of velvet chairs, a purple curtain dropping from the ceiling to brush against the wooden floor of the stage, the walls painted gold and the pillars a veined white to look like marble columns—the kids’ vision is detailed, and faithful to the digital rendering of the theater, a masterwork of 3-D virtual design at which they marveled when the project was first announced. That was six years ago. The kids were only ten back then, yet they won’t forget what they were promised. Children never do.
Picture this: with a seating capacity of 426, the Lavinium Theater was set to be the largest venue in the whole province of Rome, Rome itself excluded. Companies would come from all over the country to perform Shakespeare, Pirandello, and their own original pieces on its brand-new stage, and the townspeople would have the privilege of being the first audience to see productions that would go on to win national acclaim. Moreover, the theater would open its doors to schoolchildren in the morning, and to teenagers in the afternoon, so that the youth of the town could have “a place to gather, to play, to make art.” Now, you must understand that the kids have watched dozens of American movies in their lives, and that these movies have led them to entertain the belief that anything can happen at a drama club. The high school jock discovers a burning passion for singing. The shy science nerd overcomes her fears and delivers a performance to remember. Two star-crossed lovers share their first kiss behind the backcloth on opening night, while even the most austere parents tear up with pride and jump from their seats clapping after the final act. So you can imagine the kids’ excitement at the prospect of a plot of uncultivated land being transformed into a framework of pillars and crossbeams, how that excitement simmered as the months passed and the building rose in front of their eyes, all while the kids’ bodies, too, transformed, getting taller by the day, and growing hairs and breasts where there once were only glabrous, flat surfaces. Glancing at the sign posted at the entrance to the construction site, the kids did the math: the works would be complete by the time they turned fourteen, just in time for them to live their high school years to the fullest. It was perfect. Almost too good to be true.
In fact, according to the kids’ parents, it was never true. Didn’t the kids know how things worked in Italy? The owner of the construction company must have been a friend of a friend of whoever allocated the money for the theater. Anyone who took the trouble to do a little digging would soon have found out that some guy high up in government had gotten himself a penthouse overlooking the Tiber before the ink of his signature had dried on the project approval document. The building was never meant to be finished. Only to be paid for. “Don’t hold your breath, kids, or you’ll choke.” For a while the parents groused at such squandering of public money, but one can harbor such an emotion for only so long before it becomes wearying and trite. Wasn’t there a hint of satisfaction in their voices when they said “I told you so” after the workers stopped coming to the construction yard? Yet the kids, being pigheaded, as kids are, didn’t believe them. They couldn’t fathom how the workers could simply walk out on a building they’d labored so hard to raise, how they could be so indifferent after they’d sweated off fat and health to lay the foundation, brick upon brick. Years have gone by, but the kids still await the workers’ return. In the meantime, they take what they can get and claim their seats in the closed-off construction site. After all, they technically own the place.
This is what the indigo girl said to the girl with freckles on the day they first contemplated breaking into the theater: “It’s technically ours, you know.” The freckled girl frowned. Though the sign clearly stated KEEP OUT, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, she knew that didn’t mean them. But the indigo girl has always had a flair for rhetoric, more so since they studied Aristotle at school. “Hear me out,” she said. The theater was paid for with public money. Public money comes from taxes. The kids’ parents pay taxes. What the kids’ parents pay for belongs to the parents. What belongs to the parents belongs to the kids. Therefore, the theater belongs to the kids. It was a simple syllogism, its conclusion as elementary to the indigo girl as the fact that being human makes us mortal. Without further dispute, the freckled girl followed the others inside. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else they could go anyway.
When they were younger, they had other places. They could spend time in one of the playgrounds scattered around town, but now the swings creak as soon as the kids rest their butts on the seats, and elementary school children pout and glower at them. Next to each playground, even the dogs have their own parks. The kids used to have a bar where they hung out, but it has gone out of business, while the other bars are thronged with retirees playing scala quaranta from morning till dusk. Nor do the kids wish to cross paths with the other dreamers in town, the middle-aged men and women who look up at the TV screen calling lottery numbers and have faith that the next time will be the one, just wait and see, can you imagine how many things you can buy with six million euros? “Play these numbers, Anto’, quick, only fifteen seconds left before the draw.”
What about the main square? you might ask. Sure, it would be the perfect place to hang out, if only people didn’t die every other day, and mourners didn’t pour out of the church into the square, drowning out the kids’ laughter with their weeping, shaming the girls’ shrill voices into silence with their muttered condolences. And the streets? A parade of shops that have succumbed to the economic crisis, closed shutters and empty windows everywhere, sidewalks like paths through a graveyard—you’ll agree that it makes a gloomy backdrop for a stroll. Can’t they just meet in one of the kids’ apartments, then? Where? In the bedrooms they share with their elder siblings, grumpy old men at the age of twenty-eight, their degrees gathering dust on the wall while they scrape together money with temporary nighttime jobs? Or do you mean in the living rooms, where their laid-off parents pretend to watch TV from the couch while eavesdropping on the kids’ every conversation, unfailingly offering unsolicited advice as a substitute for the allowance they don’t always pay? No, it won’t do, so let the kids embark on the little adventure of sneaking through the holes in the fence and working their way through the weeds. What’s the harm in it, really? Let them have this, at least.
Look at them, how skillfully and dauntlessly they climb the scaffolding to reach the highest point—you’d think they were five Quasimodos, grown up amid pillars as naked as fleshless bones, well versed in hiding their luminous pimply faces from people in the streets. Look how cozily they sit there on the tiers, feasting on barbecue potato chips and Coke, listening to Drake, Imagine Dragons, and De André from a Bluetooth speaker, confident that the music will be drowned out by the noise of passing cars. When the indigo girl is in charge of the soundtrack, you might hear Broadway cast recordings playing on repeat. Lately she’s gotten into Dear Evan Hansen, and she takes the stage to prove to the others that she’d be a perfect Zoe, given half a chance. “We only need three more people to have the full cast. We can rehearse here. Come on, it’ll be fun.” She’s bought a book about the show, with photos and interviews with the cast. She’s listened to the album countless times. She’s seen pictures and videos posted on the official Twitter and YouTube sites for the musical, and every morning at breakfast she watches the stories of the actors and understudies on Instagram. “Trust me, it’ll be as good as the real thing.” The “American” boy is intrigued. He wants to be a millionaire, and you’ve got to start somewhere. His rags-to-riches story might take off from playing the lead in an amateur production. Who knows? He can see the headlines already: FROM THE PROJECTS IN THE PONTINE MARSHES TO A SEVEN-BEDROOM VILLA IN HOLLYWOOD. Like Jim Carrey and Jessica Chastain. Like Emma Stone in La La Land. He wants to buy his parents a house, where his father will finally have a big kitchen with the one-thousand-euro food processor he’s always said he wants before he dies. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do this, guys.”
Unlucky for them, not all the kids are moved by such lofty aspirations. The freckled girl has grown to like the theater well enough, but only in the most concrete sense of the word. She might concede that the building, seemingly stable and already roofed, does its job as a shelter from the rain. However, becoming a star is not in her plans, which involve studying environmental engineering and being a brain drainee in Australia. When it comes to the hulking boy and the girl with a henna tattoo, on the other hand, I guess you could call their ambitions “artistic” if you consider love to be a form of art. A painting or a poem is seldom interesting when it’s uncomplicated and its meaning transparent. Similarly, it would be too straightforward and easy for these two smitten kids to simply ask each other out, so instead they give each other fleeting glances and faint smiles, their lips quivering, their fingers itching to reach out and touch the other’s skin.
“Who the fuck did this shit?”
Clearly the indigo girl doesn’t like what she’s seeing today. And how could you blame her? On the parapet of the boxes, on the right side, some graffiti has cropped up, and nothing about it would lead them to think that the tagger might turn out to be the next Banksy. BITCHES CAN SUCK MY DICK, accompanied by an unambiguously phallic drawing. The hulking boy blushes and averts his eyes. The indigo girl is outraged at the desecration of the venue and googles “how to remove graffiti,” only to learn that she can’t simply scrub it off with bleach and water. The daub is there to stay. Gone is the confidence that when the workers come back, they will find everything exactly as they left it. The end has begun, thanks to what the indigo girl calls “a jerk with no regard for public property.” In her eyes, the graffiti counts as an act of self-sabotage. The freckled girl tells her not to fret too much about it. After all, isn’t this kind of like the beginning of In the Heights? (The musical was the indigo girl’s favorite a couple of months ago, and the kids all know the plot and the songs by heart at this point.) The indigo girl hesitates but eventually agrees, and as they walk home later tonight, the kids will feel a bit like the protagonists of In the Heights, torn between their yearning to leave this godforsaken town and their dogged determination to save it.
The henna girl already has a project in store, its blueprint mapped out down to the tiniest detail in her mind. She’s going to redeem what used to be their favorite bar by turning it into a board-game pub where a fusion of Italian food and Chinese, Romanian, Pakistani, and Ecuadoran dishes will be served. When someone expresses doubt that she’ll succeed, she says “Watch me” and smiles a knowing
smile. Little does she know, however, that she’ll be the first one to leave, and that her departure won’t be a glorious flight to Berlin or Shanghai or New York but merely a relocation to another lousy hole after her mother’s employer presents her with a simple choice: either she moves her whole family to the North or she loses her job. What good would it do the henna girl’s mother to say that it makes no difference where her ass is sitting—whether in the office here or in another branch in the North—since all she does at work is exchange emails with co-workers in India and Poland and oversee contracts negotiated on the Internet? She keeps quiet and holds on tight to the family’s only source of income. She agrees to go. The henna girl must go with her.
Farewell, native home. Farewell, ye mountains of trash at the side of the roads, ye school nicknamed Alcatraz, which now sounds like a term of endearment instilling tenderness in the girl’s heart. Farewell, hulking boy, who on the last day almost shies away from hugging the henna girl, though eventually they’re in each other’s arms, and the warmth of their bodies feeds their imagination about what they could have had: timid kisses in the privacy of the backstage, hands held in a mild PDA, and, who knows, perhaps even undressing to expose the flesh and find out what happens after a lovemaking scene fades to black. All they say before the henna girl leaves is “Let’s keep in touch.” But “touch” is a treacherous word, because touching is what they won’t be doing when they text and group-Skype, and the promises made online—”Of course I’ll come to visit you all!”—are never fulfilled, either because of the high price of the train tickets or because it is onerous to lead a double life, split between reality and what-ifs. And this is what the hulking boy’s reality will look like: though anatomy books will offer him some knowledge of women during his time in med school, he won’t be able to fathom how his own body could ever perform the biological functions that the books so accurately describe; he will never quite think of himself as a suitable protagonist for a rom-com, and even when he falls in love again at the age of twenty-seven, he will dawdle in the first act for far too long, held back by his fear of attachment, his fear of loss, the chance that his desires might never be satisfied.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kids are still sixteen years old and still sitting in the orchestra, though there’s only three of them now. It’s been a few weeks since the last time the hulking boy joined them, and they already think of two months ago as “back in the old days,” which is what their grandparents say when they talk about the postwar years and the economic boom. None of them speaks of the theater being finished anymore. Perhaps they worry that they’d jinx their wishes if they voiced them, so instead they discuss what happened this morning at school, and to say “Fingers crossed that Mrs. Narducci won’t test me next week” is as much as they dare to hope out loud.
The theater is now littered with smashed beer bottles and cigarette butts. Graffiti has mushroomed all around the building, even in places where the kids haven’t been brave enough to venture. “Pigs,” the indigo girl mutters, booting a can of Red Bull and sending it bouncing down the tiers toward the stage. The freckled girl glances at it but doesn’t move. She used to pick up the trash, but lately it’s started to feel like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Whatever, the workers will clean up. If they ever come back. In the meantime, the “pigs” serve the role of common enemy, which history has proved time and again to constitute the most resistant of social glues. The kids fantasize about catching the hooligans red-handed, as the saying goes, their hands in this case literally red with spray paint. The indigo girl imagines a scenario à la West Side Story, with the two gangs of kids glaring at one another, not foreseeing that it’ll be the American boy she’ll have to face one day to save this place from destruction.
When the day comes, she screams at him to stop while he punches the walls and kicks the pillars, as though he is trying to tear the building down with his blows. His knuckles are bleeding. His eyes are red from crying, and all they see now, when they look at the theater, is six million euros’ worth of waste. How many things can you buy with six million euros? Loads of food and clothes and infinite months of rent and bills. A man’s life—the American boy’s father’s, who three days ago hung himself outside of the factory where he used to work, because he couldn’t bear not being able to provide for his children, as any good father is supposed to do. How expensive hopes can be, and what’s the use of a half-finished theater, anyway? The American boy climbs the scaffolding in a fury, aiming for the top. The two girls go after him, terrified that he might decide to follow his father and jump off, but he only wants to feel the strength of his muscles, to make sure that a heart is still pounding in his ribcage. “Leave me alone!” he shouts when the indigo girl grabs him by the arm, and after he shoves her away, she falters backwards and bumps against the freckled girl, who slips off the platform and falls onto the stage.
Something cracks when she touches the ground. Perhaps a femur. Perhaps her spine. The freckled girl’s thoughts are too fuzzy to make an accurate assessment, though she can see with clarity that her friends are climbing down toward her, and when the indigo girl yells “I’m calling an ambulance!” she’s keenly aware of what this means. The town will find out that the kids have been trespassing on the construction site. Parents will worry that their foolhardy children will be the next to come back home with a fractured bone, or to not come back home at all. Concerned citizens will rally to demand the razing of the building, and in a few months, when municipal elections are held, the demolition of the Lavinium Theater will be among the campaign promises on every candidate’s leaflet, and perhaps the easiest one for the future mayor to keep. What an unhappy ending for the kids, right? And yet, if you look closely, you will see that the freckled girl is actually smiling. The demolition company her father works for has not been doing too well lately. He’ll be glad to hear that there’s business coming their way.Continue reading
Inside the plate glass window, I’m putting my whites in, and bleach, and my denims, and lights, darks, and hots and handwashes, when the tourbus grinds to the curb outside to drop the teenage Southwest Drum and Bugle Corps at Clean Laundry, South Philly. There it idles, its slab sides silver, decaled script and musical notes America-colored. The kids debark pell-mell and fill, apologetically, the aisle between the washers and dryers, politely vying to put loads in, bonking their duffels to the ground, pausing confused at the change machine chucking chains of quarters into their hands and the little basin. They excavate Tide pods their moms left like chocolates in their bag bottoms. One drops to the floor, I pick it up, in my hand it has the weight and flex of a small testicle. I hand it back.
I’m invisible as air in the interstices of their conversation. Caden, Corie, Braden, Jordan, Jaden or Jerry from Albuquerque or Pasadena made some mistake at last night’s armory showcase, so they didn’t win, but gave it their all, made strides and their best effort, they’ll shake it off and, next year, nail it. Are we going to see Suicide Squad this afternoon, a teen girl says to a boy group the aisle’s full of. They lean at her with meaty lurches, swig from water bottles they unclip from belt loops and knapsacks.
But one kid’s saying how this creepy teacher, he hits on girl students like all the time, it’s gross … Does it matter? Does it? In this light, matter? “Sorry, I’m a teacher,” I say, “and a mom, and that shouldn’t be happening. You should tell somebody in authority.” They nod, shrug, turn to their affairs.
It’s interesting, being invisible, watching myself utterly unwatched.
Sixteen, I said to the volleyball player, 28, from my co-ed all-ages JCC team, who flirted and drove me home after practice, “do you want to fool around?”
“Sounds nice,” he said, never touching me, waiting for me to get out of the car, never offered to drive me home again. I heard he died young, though he lives in my mind today, with his bald spot, hard spike, already fattening belly.
If you get up early, in Paris, and walk to the zoo so you get in just as it opens, pay your way in, pass the other dispiriting exhibits, with the cud chewers, their tongues hanging out, and the sadness of thick-tailed leopards in cramped tiny jungle spaces, barely able to prowl down a hill; and ignoring the shitty peacocks, displaying their iridescent astonishments to no one who cares, with stressful screams like babies in pain; then you might round a corner—if you’re early enough—to see the baboons come out, like clowns from an improbable car, released fighting from their unknowable indoor pens to the outdoor space along the artificial rockface where they spend their daytimes. And your baby girl, a perpetual warm lump in your arms, extends her arms toward them.
They were quiet all night, you believe, and if not free now, freer, and they flash, swing, jump, chatter, and shriek at each other. They’re so killingly angry. Why don’t they kill each other? There are so many of them, how could they fit inside wherever they are, nights, and do they hate? Is hate a monkey thing? Is anger a constant baboon state, or is it the tiniest opportunity in the suggestion of breeze on the outdoor air that changes things? It’s like an energy, electric, transferring beast to beast to beast, any dissipation barely noticeable at first but there’s an eventual stilling until, bored, they settle down to watch themselves watched.
How inexperienced I am. How inexperienced I still am.Continue reading
How did you come to name the antagonist of the story John F. Kennedy in the first place?
It was mostly an accident. A boy who antagonized me in high school was named after a different US president, and I used that name in the first draft and then I thought, “Oh, shit, what if he read it?” So I just picked another president.
Music appears often in your stories. In “Kennedy,” Jamie tells us that he likes Tevin Campbell and Britpop, Kennedy is into Death Metal, and the art teacher plays John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks in class. In the title story of your latest collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, the main character, Adam, has just been forced to leave his indie-rock band. He moves back in with his mother, and, in perhaps my favorite scene of the book, plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dirge, while his mother listens.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence? Music is such a major component in our lives, and yet I rarely see it incorporated into fiction as seamlessly as I see it incorporated into your stories. How do you do it so well?
This is all stuff from my own life. In junior high, I was deeply obsessed with Tevin Campbell. In high school, while everyone else was listening to grunge, I was into Britpop, buying import CDs and magazines at Tower Records and staring at pictures of, like, the lead singer of Suede for hours. My art teacher played nothing but Yanni and John Tesh CDs while we worked. A friend of mine does a version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a really, really slow song, and it’s so wonderful.
I pretty much just listen to rap music, and then I listen to whatever my two boys (Griff, eleven; Patch, six) like, which right now is BTS and Froggy Fresh and the Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack.
It’s very kind of you to say that about my stories and how music works within those stories. Ever since I was a kid, music has been really important to me, as I imagine it is to most people, but I have obsessive tendencies, so I sometimes get way too invested in music (see: Campbell, Tevin). I’ve always loved the way Jennifer Egan used music in A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” and “Ask Me if I Care” chapters, the way the music serves as this point of connection, to pull two people together for a brief moment, to share the sound. And for someone like me, who struggles with anxiety and being around people, music is a kind of common language that lets me connect with other people. So I try to bring that into my fiction.
I do listen to music while I write sometimes. For my last novel, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers on a loop, one album, over and over and over. For The Family Fang, when I did the revisions, I listened to Sam Amidon’s “Relief,” a single song, over and over and over for hours and hours while I revised. I wish I could remember what I was listening to when I wrote this story. Oh, actually, it might have been the Silver Surfer NES soundtrack. Or the Robocop Gameboy soundtrack, since I was writing about videogames. Videogame music from the 90s is about as perfect as it gets.
Did you play video games growing up? Do you play them now?
A majority of my childhood was spent playing video games. Going to the arcade with five dollars and just playing Mortal Kombat and Cyberball and NBA Jams for a few hours, I was as happy as I could be. It was a way for my brain to kind of calm itself, let the colors and sounds do their work. And videogames were a great way to figure out narrative, to break down a larger story into smaller chapters, to see the progression.
I haven’t owned a system since my SNES in high school. I kind of lost the desire and then games passed me by, and I wasn’t good at them anymore. But now that I have kids, they love to play, so we have an Xbox and it’s made me really happy to play with them, though I am very bad at it. I also still have my original Sega Master System, so the kids love playing those games with me, like Shinobi or Pro Wrestling, and I can really wow them with how goddamned good I am at them.
About halfway through the story, we, as readers, realize that there is at least some narrative distance between the events that transpire in the story and Jamie’s retelling of it. (“Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive.”) It’s clear to the readers that, years later, Kennedy still has an impact on Jamie’s life. When you write a story like this, do you have a mental image of Jamie as both a teenager and as an adult? If so, what is his life like now? Does he have children of his own?
One year in high school, there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T-shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-ACTO knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard. He’d hit me. And he said pretty bad things to us. I never once tried to protect myself or tell anyone or ask for help or stand up to him. It didn’t even really occur to me, even though I was fifteen years old. I think that my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.
But the ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank god, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I don’t think he has children of his own. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate, and who he is. It’s a strange sensation.
At another point in the story, Jamie speaks directly to the reader, saying, “In such a short amount of time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” Those lines split the story wide open for me. In the most beautiful way, they add another dimension. What is the reader’s relationship to Jamie?
I’m not sure. It kind of works like this for me. At first, it’s just me talking to myself. And then it’s me talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to Ben.
I like those moments in fiction when you’ve been with the story for a while and then the narrator suddenly talks to you, pulls you into the narrative, and you have to give yourself over to that intimacy. It’s startling, but I love that moment, when I feel like the narrator can see me, knows me in some important way.
At the end of the story, after Kennedy has committed his final—as far as we know—atrocity, I immediately thought of the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Yeats, particularly the line, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I’ve always understood that line to imply chaos, and the fact that Kennedy repeatedly destroys the miniature Parthenon—a monument of exactness—seems to play into that same idea. Does Jamie’s inability to understand or comprehend the events that occur in the story suggest an attempt to apply order to a world where order is seemingly absent? Should the writer concern himself with questions like that, or is that the literary critic’s job? (Or is it no one’s job, because it’s a stupid question?)
No, I think a writer needs to think about that stuff, but I think it happens after the fact, when you realize what you’ve done and you’re trying to make sense of it.
At the heart of the story, it’s a boy trying to understand why someone did a bad thing to him. And there’s no good answer. It’s just random cruelty. But it’s your life and you can’t really just shrug your shoulders and go about your business. Or at least I can’t. So you try again and again to look at the moment and figure out what it meant, how you could have changed it.
So I wasn’t thinking about chaos and order. I was thinking about JFK, the force of his anger and agitation. And I was thinking about Jamie, completely unable to protect himself. And the story just happens. Afterwards, I can see those things, but not in the moment.
You’ve now published two story collections (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two novels (The Family Fang and Perfect Little World). At what stage do you determine the form an idea takes? Have you ever condensed a novel into a story, or expanded a story into a novel?
In most cases, I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be a short story or a novel. I spend so much time just worrying narratives in my head, spending a long, long time visualizing them, so once it comes time to actually start writing, I have a sense of how long it will be.
I turned a failed novel about a half-human/half-bear baby into a short story. And I turned a short story about a brother and sister who play Romeo & Juliet in a high school production into a chapter in my novel The Family Fang. I think this is mostly because I never want to throw out anything that I write. I’m always trying to figure out some way to reshape it into something halfway decent. So sometimes figuring out the form can do that. Sometimes it doesn’t, sadly.
You also have a novel coming out in November called Nothing to See Here. Could we hear what it’s about?
It’s a weird little thing about friendship and children and spontaneous human combustion, which is a neverending obsession with me. It all takes place over a single summer and it’s this really compressed narrative with weird elements, so it was fun to write. I wrote it so fast, in about ten days.
How do you manage to get all that writing done?
Honestly, I don’t really write for much of the year. I think it probably averages out to about two or three months out of the year when I’m actually on my computer writing. When I’m teaching and grading and reading, I don’t have much time for writing. And my kids need my attention and I like hanging out with them, and they don’t really want me to go sit in bed and write all day, so I don’t even try. I used to feel like a failure, and I’m always telling my students to write as much as they can, but I don’t do it. I have friends who write every morning for two hours and I admire that, but it’s not something that I’m capable of doing.
So I kind of save it all in my head. All the time, I’m trying to figure it all out in my head, and I just go over it again and again and again. To me, that’s my real writing process, just holding it in my head, cycling through it, building it up. So when the summer comes, or I go do a week-long residency, and I can sit down and actually write, I tend to be a frantic writer, going really fast.
Subtropics is incredibly lucky to have the pleasure of publishing both you and your wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, in the current issue. Is Leigh Anne your first reader? Are you hers?
Leigh Anne is one of my favorite writers so I’m honored to share space with her in this issue. Leigh Anne is my first reader. I actually don’t show my work as a draft to anyone except Leigh Anne and then my agent. That’s it. Those are the two voices I trust. And Leigh Anne has known me for so long that she knows what I’m trying to do, so it’s helpful for me to hear from her because she can help me figure out how to make it exactly how I envision it.
Leigh Anne goes to residencies a few times a year to write and I love that moment, after the kids fall asleep and it’s just me awake in the house, when she calls me from some cabin, and she reads me what she’s written that day. I love hearing it for the first time, in her voice. It’s probably as happy as I get.Continue reading
John F. Kennedy was a boy in our high school, but he went by Kennedy. For a brief time, he made things pretty bad for us. We’d started our junior year without ever having exchanged a single word with him, had only seen him as he stalked the hallways, his long, greasy hair covering his face, his Coke-bottle glasses. He always wore this olive green military jacket with the name KENNEDY stitched across the right breast. Underneath that, he seemed to have every single Cannibal Corpse T-shirt in existence, a never-ending parade of skeletons and knives and blood and people with the skin ripped off their faces. He wasn’t allowed to wear the T-shirts at school, since they were against the dress code, so he wore the jacket over them, even when it was hot out, and if he sensed your weakness, he’d open his jacket and flash the T-shirt at you as he passed you in the hallway.
Ben and I were best friends, each other’s only friend, really. There were other people we liked fine enough, and sometimes we’d hang out, but Ben and I were constant. I liked the steadiness of his friendship, that if I ever reached out into the darkness, he would be there. We had known each other since we were six years old, when his family had moved here to Coalfield from Seattle because his dad taught sociology at the tiny liberal arts college in town. Ben was the only Japanese kid in Coalfield, though there were some Chinese kids who were adopted and a Korean family who ran a Chinese restaurant. He wrote experimental poetry, had won a national contest for high school kids the year before. I was just a regular kid, pretty smart, but I’d been protected by my parents, which had left me without street smarts, with no sense of how to navigate high school. My parents still kissed me on the lips, and when they hugged me, it was always for slightly longer than I wanted it to be. We played bridge after dinner, my parents and I and my younger sister; we listened to Simon and Garfunkel records, my mom singing along. The idea of going to a party, or the football game on Friday nights, never would have occurred to me or Ben. We hunkered down, made our own happiness, and hoped that maybe we’d figure things out by the time we left Coalfield and went off to college.
Kennedy ended up in our art class in our junior year. The room was some kind of converted garage, cement floors splattered with paint, and there were all these huge, heavy tables, where we sat on stools while the teacher, Mrs. Banks, lounged on a recliner in the corner of the room because her back was messed up. She barked out instructions, and we’d follow them to the best of our abilities. On the first day of classes, a minute after the late bell rang, Kennedy skulked over to the table where Ben and I were sitting and threw his backpack down so hard that it flew across the table’s surface and hit Ben’s arm. Ben took the pain without complaint. And maybe that was all Kennedy needed, that certainty that he could hurt us and we’d never tell.
Our first assignment was to do a figure drawing from this little twelve-inch wooden mannequin. Ben was pretty good at it, had always been a decent artist, and had sketched out a pretty perfect representation, but I was having trouble with it, couldn’t make the individual parts of the figure come together. Kennedy just took a graphite pencil and pressed it so hard to the paper that it nearly ripped it apart. He drew the most basic stick figure and then drew X’s where the eyes would be. “Look at this shit,” he said to me, but I tried to ignore him, still trying to get my drawing right. He suddenly punched me in the arm so hard that I gasped. “Look,” he said. Even though he was so greasy, so scuzzy, his skin was perfect and pale, not a mark of acne. His eyes looked wavy beneath the thick lenses of his glasses, but they were an intense blue.
I looked down at the drawing, the dead figure. “Yeah, OK,” I said. I went back to my own drawing. “That’s you,” he said. I just shrugged. Mrs. Banks was far away from us, maybe asleep. I stood up. “I need to get some water,” I said, and walked to the drinking fountain in the hallway, where I took a long, sustained sip. I could feel my face burning with the fear of what Kennedy might do to me, and I took several deep breaths. When I got back, Ben was staring at me with this look of alarm, like he was trying to silently warn me of some impending doom. I sat back down and
looked at my drawing. A huge, cartoonish dick had been appended to my figure. “Oh, man,” I said, looking at Kennedy, who was completely focused on his own drawing, acting like he had no idea what was going on. “C’mon, Kennedy. Please.”
“What?” he said. “Oh, wow, look at that. You like huge cocks, I guess? You look like you love big dicks.”
I tried to erase the dick, but even after I’d rubbed and rubbed, the outline was still visible on the paper. So I flipped to the next sheet of the pad and started over. While I drew, Kennedy leaned toward Ben and slapped his arm. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, you, Nip. What’s your name?”
“Ben,” Ben whispered.
“Hey, Ben,” Kennedy said. “You see that guy over there?”
I couldn’t help but look, too, and we turned to see Eric Murdock at one of the far tables. He had a full mustache and was wearing a tank top.
“That guy has a huge dick,” Kennedy said. “I saw it in the locker room. Twelve inches, probably.”
“OK,” Ben said.
“And he’s a virgin. Can’t get a girl to fuck him. Hey!” He punched Ben’s arm. “What do you think about that?”
“Nothing,” Ben said.
“What’s his name?” Kennedy asked Ben, pointing at me.
“Jamie,” Ben said.
“What about you, shithead?” Kennedy asked me.
“Well,” I said, “maybe girls don’t want to have sex with a twelve-inch penis.”
“I know a lot of girls who would like to bounce around on that thing,” Kennedy said. “Older girls. Women.”
When it became clear to Kennedy that we weren’t going to give him anything of substance, he started drawing devil horns and a tail on his stick figure and pentagrams dancing around its head. He didn’t talk to us again, like we didn’t exist, like he hadn’t punched both of us so goddamned hard, talked about huge dicks. Ben and I were grateful for the reprieve. We thought maybe that would be the end of things, that Kennedy would move on and we’d be safe.
After school, I drove Ben to his house in my hand-me-down Chevy Cavalier and we stumbled inside. We hadn’t said a word about Kennedy for the entire drive, partly because we didn’t know what to say, how we could talk about him without saying the word “dick” a bunch of times. We’d already done all of our homework during study hall, the work easy because it was only the first day, and so we ran past his mom, who translated poetry and complicated technical manuals from Japanese into English, and closed the door to his room. We decided to go old-school, put Contra in the Nintendo, eschewing the secret code that would have let us gain unlimited lives, and worked ourselves into a state of complete numbness, our eyes glazed over, like we’d plugged our brains into a machine and, in return for our full attention, it had made us happy, our bodies ice cold.
We were both obsessed with video games. We spent every dollar of our allowances on new games, and because we shared everything, we could buy twice as many. Ben had a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo, an old Atari 2600, plus a
Game Boy and even a Game Gear. I had the two Nintendo systems, plus a Sega Genesis and a Sega Master System. We would play for hours; sometimes I’d play until my hands were paralyzed, until I could no longer bend my fingers, and I would simply hand the controller, mid-game, to Ben, who would pick it up without missing a beat. It wasn’t enough to finish a game; we had to beat it in record time, playing the same board over and over and over until we figured out how to clear it as fast as possible. As each of us played, the other would whisper, “Go, go, go, go,” and it
sounded as steady as a heartbeat.
We had to have the highest scores. And when we got them, we took photos of the screen, turning off all the lights in the room until it was pitch black, wiping the screen clean with Windex so there were no smudges. Ben even had a tripod to steady the camera. And even with a perfect picture, when we got the photos developed, the images were still slightly blurred, and you could see the rounded
edges of the CRT screen. We’d get doubles, one for each of us. We kept them in a photo album, labeled and carefully curated. We thought, maybe, this might help us get into a top-notch college. Even if it didn’t, who cared? For those hours, our bodies were the bodies on the screen, and we kept them alive for as long as we possibly could.
Finally, after three hours of gaming, Ben’s mom called us to dinner. I always loved the food at Ben’s house, dishes like seaweed crumbled up in a bowl of pristine rice, a raw egg cracked over it. And Ben loved eating at my house, so many casseroles, so many variations of starch, cheese, and meat. That night, Ben’s mom had made somen noodles that we dipped into little bowls of hon-dashi and soy sauce,
little dried shrimp floating in the bowl, that fishy taste that made me so happy.
“How was school?” asked Mr. Nakamura, and Ben and I looked at each other for a second too long. “That bad?” Mr. Nakamura said.
“It was OK,” Ben finally said. How would we even begin to describe Kennedy? What could be done? I stuffed a bunch of noodles into my mouth, slurping them up. “It was fine,” I agreed. And that was that. It was like, in missing that moment when things were still normal, we had given up any chance of controlling Kennedy’s effect on our lives. He had us. If he wanted us, whatever he wanted, he could have us.
But things were OK for a week or two. Kennedy would tease us, trying to gross us out, prodding at our bodies, testing for weak spots. He’d grab my ear and twist it, making me yell out, which would rouse Mrs. Banks to an upright position, but she’d just call for order and that would be that. He once said that he doubted that Ben had
any pubic hair, and tried to pull down his pants, but Ben held on to his belt, until Kennedy grew bored. “You guys are the fucking worst,” he would say, staring at us like we were Sea-Monkeys he’d ordered that had immediately disappointed him.
We didn’t do anything. We didn’t tell Mrs. Banks, since we couldn’t imagine what she would do. We didn’t sit at another table, surround ourselves with other people for protection. We didn’t fight back. Now I understand it: we had stayed invisible for so long that we weren’t used to people noticing us, and so when Kennedy noticed us, shined a light on us, we simply froze, simply sat there and
took it, all these little indignities, and hoped that he would fuck up in some other class and get suspended, a temporary reprieve.
One day Mrs. Banks told us that we were going to work in groups. Each group was to create a replica of the Parthenon out of cardboard. The project was going to take a week to complete and would require a lot of precision work.
“How many people per group?” Ben asked, his voice quavery and weird.
“Three,” she said. “Yes, three per group.”
Ben visibly deflated, and Kennedy smiled. “You fuckers thought you could get away from me?” he asked.
“It’s not that,” I said. “We just like working with each other.”
“Yeah,” Kennedy said, leering. “I bet you like working with each other. Working each other’s dicks in your mouths.”
“C’mon, Kennedy,” I said.
“You are the fairiest fairy that I’ve ever seen. What kind of music do you like?”
There was no way that I was going to tell him that my favorite album was Tevin Campbell’s I’m Ready. I wasn’t going to tell him that I liked Britpop.
“Heavy metal,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said, slowly nodding. “Like what?”
“Ratt?” I said, like I was in a spelling bee and had never heard the word before in my life.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said, laughing.
“That’s metal,” I said, confused. “I know it is.”
“You need to listen to death metal,” he said. “You need to listen to Mayhem.
The lead singer killed himself and then another guy in the band made a stew with his brains.”
“That’s awful,” Ben said, and he sounded like a grandmother who’d just heard that a lady at her church had cancer.
“You two …,” he said, but didn’t say anything else. He just stared at us. “I’m gonna work on you two.”
At my house, Ben and I played Donkey Kong Country. I used a stopwatch while Ben tried to run as quickly as possibly through the board, chaining rolls together to keep the speed boost, plowing through enemies instead of taking time to jump on them. It was hypnotic, so calming. “You’re doing it,” I said, smiling. Ben worked his hands on the controller, could almost do this blindfolded.
“I’m scared,” he suddenly said.
“Of the game?” I asked, confused, looking at the screen.
“Of Kennedy. I’m scared of him,” Ben said.
“Me, too, I guess,” I said.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“Nothing. What can we do?” I really had no clue.
“Go to the principal. Go to the police. He’s going to hurt us.”
“It would be so embarrassing,” I said.
“I know,” he said. Right at this moment, he got dinged by an enemy, and he cursed, tossing the controller to the ground. “Here,” he said, gesturing to the controller. “You take over.”
We switched positions and I started the game over, the side-scrolling making me wonder if the game would ever end, the way it kept opening up. I wanted it to never end.
“We should kill him,” I said.
“No way,” Ben said. “Not even as a joke.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s OK,” he said after a few seconds.
“We’ll be OK,” I said.
“OK,” he said, but he sounded sad. I turned away from the game, watched it reflected in Ben’s eyes, the colors so beautiful.
Our Parthenon was a disaster. Ben and I simply didn’t have the kind of brain for three-dimensional building. Nothing quite made sense, no matter how long we stared at the photo of the Parthenon—the one in Nashville, not in Greece. And Kennedy, dear Lord, he did everything possible to mess it up. I wondered how he’d made it this far in school when it was so clear how little he cared, how he would dare anyone in authority to do something about it. But it was like he was invisible to people in charge. I couldn’t figure it out.
We had to use a hot glue gun to set the pieces of cardboard, and Kennedy immediately took control of it. While we were holding the pieces together, waiting for the glue, Kennedy would touch the tip of the gun, burning hot, to our fingers, sometimes even squirting the hot glue onto our skin. We’d yelp, and Kennedy would howl with laughter.
“Kennedy, seriously,” Ben said. “Don’t do that again.”
“OK,” he said, still giggling. “OK, you’re right. Sorry. OK, hold it steady. I’ll really do it this time.”
And then he’d burn us again. At the end of the day, Ben and I held up our hands for inspection and noted all the little burns, purple and angry, that covered our hands. Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.
That Friday, the last day of the project, we still had a lot to do, because Kennedy kept breaking our Parthenon out of spite. The night before, I’d had anxiety dreams where for the first time I got a grade lower than an A because Kennedy fucked it up for me. I couldn’t get into any colleges. In the dream, my parents kept asking, “What’s wrong? How did this happen?” which was crazy because my parents only asked that I do my best, barely even checked my grades. And now we had to stay after school, the three of us in the art room, in order to finish the Parthenon. We’d begged Kennedy to go home, to let us finish it on our own, but he’d insisted he wanted to be there, to make sure it was up to his standards.
So it was just the three of us, not even Mrs. Banks in her recliner, which was where Kennedy was now lounging, violently yanking on the lever to make the leg support unfold. He put a Morbid Angel album on the cassette player, which during class only ever played John Tesh jazz. After about an hour, we had something that resembled the Parthenon. We carried it over to the work table and put it next to the other Parthenons.
“OK, Kennedy,” Ben said. “We’re finished.”
“We’re not finished until I sign off,” Kennedy said, hopping out of the chair. He walked past the supply cabinet and grabbed an X-Acto knife, which made both of us instantly stiffen. He tested the point of the blade on the tip of his finger. A little pinprick of blood appeared. “C’mon, Kennedy,” I said. We backed away from him, putting a table between us.
“Calm down, pussies,” he finally said, slipping the blade into the front pocket of his jacket. Then he picked up our Parthenon and held it up in the air as if he was going to slam it to the ground.
“Kennedy!” we both shouted, and he gently put it back down on the table.
“Excellent work,” he said. “Makes these other Parthenons look like a fucking joke.”
“OK, great,” I said. “We have to go now.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, looking curious, as if he had never once considered the possibility that we had lives away from him.
“We’re going to my house,” I said. “Play some video games.”
“I could come over, too, if you want,” he said, and he wasn’t smiling. We couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“His mom’s pretty strict,” Ben said, thinking quickly. “She’s a hard-ass. I can’t bring people over without her OK first.”
“Well, tell you what. Next week, I’m coming over. Play some of these video games. Have fun. But right now, I need you guys to give me a ride. I missed my bus, because you fuckers couldn’t glue cardboard together. So give me a ride, OK?”
“OK,” I said. “I guess so.”
Kennedy got in the back seat of my car, and I was terrified of what he might do there, where I couldn’t quite see him. I thought he might cover my eyes while I was driving, kick at the back of my seat the entire ride. But he just kind of fell across the entire back seat, lying on his back.
“Drive out to the soccer fields,” he told us. “Over on Wrigley. Then turn onto Bald Knob Road. Bald fucking knob. Har-har. You two have bald knobs, I bet.”
For the rest of the ride, Kennedy just lay there, not making a sound. “OK,” I said as I made the turn, “I’m on Bald Knob Road.”
“Two twenty-two,” he replied. “Buncha shit in the front yard.”
We pulled up to a one-story ranch, and he was right, there was a bunch of shit in the front yard. There were two busted riding mowers, a burned-black steel drum with blackened pieces of wood sticking out of it.
He didn’t get out of the car.
“We’re here,” I said after a while.
“Just give me a minute,” he said. He didn’t move. I could hear him breathing, it was so quiet in the car.
“OK,” he said, jumping out of the car. “On Monday, I’m coming home with you.”
“Kennedy, I don’t—”
“Motherfucker, I’m coming over,” he said, leaning back through the open door, his face close to mine. “And if you try to leave me at school, drive off without me, I’ll look you up in the phone book and then I’ll come over there. And it will be bad fucking news for you two.”
“OK,” I said. “OK, you can come over.”
“Have a good weekend,” he said, running to the house.
We sat there for a while, my hands shaking.
“I think I’m sick, Jamie,” Ben said. I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror and was surprised at how pale I looked.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
“It’ll be OK,” I said. “He won’t do anything with my mom there, and my sister too.”
“Are you serious?” Ben asked. “He’s going to kill us.”
“He won’t,” I said. “He’s just testing us. He’s just messing with us.”
“Maybe,” Ben said, but his look was far off, like something had glitched in his brain.
“Do you want to play video games?” I asked.
“Maybe just drop me off at home,” he replied. “I don’t feel so great. I think I need to rest.”
When I dropped him off, I grabbed his arm, and I hated the way he flinched when I did it. But I still held on to him. “We’ll protect each other,” I said. “OK?”
Ben nodded. “OK,” he said.
“If he did something to you, Ben,” I said, almost crying, “I really would kill him.”
Ben smiled and got out of the car. I didn’t see him the rest of the weekend, didn’t even pick up the phone.
On Monday, when school was over, Ben and I stood outside my car, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for Kennedy. “We should just go right now,” Ben said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“He’ll just follow us home,” I told him. I had completely given up. If Kennedy wanted to kill me, if he wanted to wrap his hands around my throat and squeeze, I would let him. Ben, I think, was still hoping there was some way out of this, some code we could punch in that would open up a secret room, a place we could hide, a place where we couldn’t be hurt. I was beyond that. Whatever happened, I just wanted to get it over with.
Kennedy finally showed up, nodding his approval that we’d waited for him. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have to be home by five or my dad will kick my fucking ass.”
My mom treated Kennedy like he was a street urchin in a Broadway musical, shaking his hand, saying how nice it was that Ben and I had added a friend to our little crew. Kennedy seemed stunned by her easy kindness, her offer of a Mountain Dew, because he barely even spoke, wouldn’t make eye contact with her. She let us get some snacks and then we were upstairs, in my room. Right away, my sister, Molly, peeked in, wanting to see this new boy, but we shouted her away, terrified, honestly. We had this unstable thing inside the house, and we wanted to keep it contained in my room so that we’d be the only people damaged when it blew up.
The night before, I’d hidden everything good, all my money, my comic books of any worth. I’d shoved it all in my closet, tossed some blankets over it. I even took the SNES, because I didn’t want it to get damaged, and put it away. I had looked around the room, wondering what I owned that Kennedy might linger on, that he might use against me. And, truly, it seemed like everything in the room would give him reason to beat me senseless.
“What game do you want to play?” I asked Kennedy, trying to be a good host.
“I never played a video game in my entire life,” he said without blinking.
I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with us.
“Are you serious?” Ben asked.
“Dead serious,” he said.
“What about the arcade?” Ben asked, as if it was unbelievable to him that someone our age had never played a video game.
“Nope,” Kennedy replied.
“Well, what do you want to play?” I asked. “What kind of game? Like, Mario Brothers or maybe a driving game?”
“Something where you kill people,” he said. “Duh.”
I looked at the games I had lined up on my bookshelf. Kennedy pushed me aside and brought his face close to the spines of the games. “Whoa,” he said finally. “Holy shit, this is Rambo. Like the movie Rambo?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”
“Can we play this?”
“Sure. It’s two-player, so we can work together.”
“Cool, cool, cool.”
I handed Kennedy a controller and turned on the system. The blue and white letters showed up on the screen, and then there was Sylvester Stallone, all buff, that red headband.
I started the game. “OK,” I said, “this button shoots bullets and then this one here shoots exploding arrows. Use those to blow up the tents and you’ll rescue the hostages.”
“You’re the yellow headband and I’m the red headband.”
Within seconds of starting the game, Kennedy walked right into a bullet and his character fell over dead. But he started up again, another life. The same thing, dead.
“Jesus fuck!” he said. “This game is fucking hard.”
“Just try to dodge the bullets,” I said. “Don’t run ahead too far.”
“Oh, shit, thanks, fucker,” he said, his voice sarcastic.
“Avoid the bullets.”
We played a little and then Kennedy died again, which meant he’d have to restart, which he did. “This gun doesn’t do shit,” he said. “Let’s try these exploding arrows.”
“Wait, be careful,” I said, just as he fired an arrow right at my character, immediately killing me.
“Oh, shit, you can kill each other?” he said.
“Well—” I said, but before I could finish he shot another arrow at me, killing me again.
“OK,” Ben said, trying to help out, “but that’s not the point—”
“Eat shit, motherfucker,” Kennedy said, killing me again. After this third death, the game over screen came up for my side of the screen. I didn’t push the button to restart, just let Kennedy wander around until he finally got killed again.
“This is what you guys do all day?” he asked, throwing the controller on the ground. “This sucks.”
“Do you want to play something else?” I asked.
“You guys just play for now,” he said. “I’m going to look around, see where you hide your fucking dildos.”
Ben looked at me like How long can we do this? but we just picked up our controllers and started playing, clearing the board, moving up the screen. I tried not to look back at Kennedy, though I wondered what he was doing.
And then, just as we were settling into a groove, Kennedy slammed Ben to the ground, jumping on top of him and straddling him. He had a pillow in his hands, and he put it over Ben’s face. “Sneak attack!” Kennedy shouted, and Ben’s arms started flailing wildly, just pawing at the air, not doing anything to stop him. And I was frozen there, watching this, for at least five seconds, before I finally pushed Kennedy off of Ben, tackling him to the ground. Kennedy then grabbed me in a headlock, squeezing so hard that my ears popped.
“This is more like it,” he said. “This is fun.” His voice was monotone, like none of this was real, like he was acting in a play.
I couldn’t get free. After a while he got bored and let me go. I scooted away from him to the wall, where I panted, holding my neck.
“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.
“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”
“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.
He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”
“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”
“I better get home myself,” Ben said, not looking at me. “I’ve got homework to do.”
“What?” I said. “You’re not coming with me?”
“You’re not coming with me?” Kennedy said, his voice mocking and high-pitched.
“It’s just …” Ben looked toward the door. “I have all this homework.”
“Please?” I said. “Please come with me.”
Kennedy turned and walked out of the room. “Come on,” he said as he stomped down the stairs. I could hear him telling my mother goodbye, and her saying that he could come by anytime he liked.
“Please,” I asked Ben again, whimpering.
“OK,” Ben finally said. “OK.”
As we walked down the stairs, he stopped me for a second. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that wasn’t cool of me.”
“It’s OK,” I said, but I didn’t know what was going on, couldn’t tell if I was making too big a deal of this. In such a short time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as
it feels to me.
When we got to Kennedy’s house, he refused to get out of the car. “Come inside with me,” he kept saying—an insistent, monotonous refrain. “Come inside. Just come inside. Come inside. Come inside and see something.”
“Please, Kennedy,” I said. “It’s late.”
“We have homework,” Ben said.
“We have homework,” I corroborated.
“Just come inside,” he said again. “Come inside and let me just show you this one thing. This one thing and then you can go. Come inside. Come inside my house.”
Inside the house, his father, his head shaved bald, gray stubble for a beard, was sitting in a recliner, watching some old boxing match on TV.
“Hello, JFK,” his father said, muting the TV, but Kennedy didn’t respond, tried to push past. His father stood, was a giant in that room, his head nearly touching the ceiling. “Who did you bring into our house?”
“Just some guys,” Kennedy said.
“Friends?” his father asked, like it was the silliest thing in the world to suggest such a thing.
“What does it matter?” Kennedy asked.
“Who are you?” his father asked, turning to us.
“I’m Ben, Mr. Kennedy,” Ben replied, but I was still too nervous to respond.
“Ben’s Japanese, OK?” Kennedy said. “Not Vietnamese.”
“I know that,” his father said. “Jesus, son, do you think I don’t know what a Vietnamese looks like?” Then he turned back to Ben. “I respect your people. Let bygones be bygones and all that. You built a hell of a society out of the rubble of that mess. Hats off to you.”
“Thank you,” Ben said.
“Who are you?” he asked me.
“Jamie,” I said.
“You friends with Kennedy?”
“Kind of?” I said, like a question.
“We have, like, a class project to work on,” Kennedy said.
“Well, I guess I’ll let you get to it,” his father said. Awkwardly he resettled himself in the recliner and turned the volume back up. We walked down a long hallway, and as we passed each open room, I noted that it was much more ordered than I had expected, considering the disarray of the lawn. Perhaps it was thanks to his father’s military background that he kept the house so clean. He even used the same air freshener that my parents did. Inhaling its flowery scent, I had this temporary moment, this little period of grace, during which my body relaxed. And then we got to Kennedy’s room. There were two different locks on the door. He took some keys out of his pocket, undid them, and opened the door. Inside, his room was pretty well organized, the walls covered in posters of death metal bands, images that, if we hadn’t already been so bombarded by the ones on Kennedy’s T-shirts, would have terrified us. “Here, let me get some stuff out,” he said, and turned on his stereo. From the speakers a deep droning
“We need to go,” I said to Kennedy, but he wasn’t listening to me; it was kind of like we weren’t even there. He opened his closet and pulled out this long box, like you’d keep comic books in, and laid it at his feet. When he removed the top of the box, he gestured for us to come closer. I was certain that there would be human heads in the box, skeletal remains. I knew it would be bad. I knew it would be hard to forget.
Ben and I looked down into the box and saw all manner of chain and leather, everything shiny, pristine. Kennedy tapped the box with his foot and it rattled. “I ordered all this from a catalog,” he said. “I’ve got quite a collection.” He reached into the box and pulled up a bee’s nest of handcuffs, so many pairs that it was hard to count. He tossed them on his bed and then pulled out a black mask that had a zipper where the mouth should be. “Sometimes I sleep in this,” he said, smiling. He seemed so proud of these things, like we were all in a club together.
“I want you to do something for me,” he then said. “Can you do something for me?”
“We really want to go home, Kennedy,” Ben said, and now he really was crying.
“I want to go home.”
“You can go home in just a second,” Kennedy said. “All I need is for Jamie to lie down on the bed and put on those handcuffs.”
“I’m not going to do that,” I said.
“If you do it, then you and Ben can go home,” he said.
I don’t know why we didn’t run, but it didn’t even occur to me. It felt like the entire world had shrunk down to this single room, that the three of us were the only people still alive in it. And even though there were two of us and one of him, I knew that it didn’t matter. So I lay down on the bed.
“On your stomach,” he said, his voice forceful, deep.
I turned onto my stomach.
“And take off your shirt,” he said, which I did. Then he handcuffed my arms to some straps attached securely to the bed frame, one set of handcuffs for each hand. He clamped them so tight that the metal pinched my wrists and I gasped.
“Kennedy,” Ben said, but I choked out, “It’s OK, Ben. I’m OK.”
Kennedy was now cuffing my ankles, so that I was pinned to the bed. I heard him rustling around in the box, and then he returned to my line of sight, close to my face and holding a kind of whip, like an octopus, all these tendrils, solid black. “This is a flogger,” he said. “I’ve never used it on a real person before.”
“Kennedy,” I said. “I’m afraid.”
He knelt on the bed, and I felt the mattress sink. And then he whipped me, lightly at first, which just made me hiss, the air rushing out of me, and then harder—again, and again, and again. And I was outside my body, just floating
above it, and I was watching myself, and I was so sad that this was happening to me. I looked pretty bad; I could see it from up there. There were all these welts on my back, but I was just taking it, just lying there.
And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.
“Get him out of those handcuffs,” his father shouted, but Kennedy was muttering.
“What?” his father said. Ben was now whimpering, lying on the ground. I could just barely see him if I turned my head at an angle.
“I dropped the keys,” Kennedy finally said.
“Well, find them,” his father said.
For about two minutes, I listened as Kennedy crawled around the room on his hands and knees while his father stood there, towering over us. He turned off the music, and it was so quiet, the most total silence I’ve ever heard.
“OK,” Kennedy finally said, “here they are.” And he unclasped all four sets of handcuffs. And I was free.
“Let’s keep all this between ourselves, OK, boys?” his father said to Ben and me, but we weren’t really listening, couldn’t respond. I put my shirt on inside out. My hands were shaking. “I’ll see that Kennedy is properly disciplined for this.”
Ben helped me up off the bed, and the two of us stumbled through the house. I stepped on a plate and cracked it in two, but we just kept moving. When we got in the car, Ben locked the doors. We sat there. I put my head on the steering wheel and tried to breathe, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually breathing or not. I couldn’t tell if I was still alive.
“Can you drive?” Ben finally asked me, but I didn’t respond. “Here,” he said. “Get in the back seat. I’ll drive us home.”
I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Ben, who must have walked the half mile to his own house. I don’t remember talking to my parents, though I must have. I don’t remember doing my homework, but in the morning it was all done. I don’t remember taking a shower, how badly it must have hurt when the water touched those welts, some of which were trickling blood. I only remember that I woke up around two in the morning, the entire house quiet, and I turned on my Nintendo, and I played Super Mario Bros., running so fast, finding every single shortcut, just running and jumping, not letting a single thing touch me, running and running, until I’d finished the game. And then I just started over, kept running, until the sun came up.
Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day. In art class, we were making African ceremonial masks out of clay, and Ben and I sat alone at our table, not talking, not saying anything. At the end of the day, I dropped Ben off at his house and then went home. I played video games. I let the pixels burn colors into my irises. I let my brain go away. I sat inside my room and made everything quiet.
And Kennedy wasn’t at school the next day, either, or the next, and with each day that he wasn’t there, I felt worse, this kind of dread building up in my stomach. I don’t remember much of those days except that Ben was not really a part of them, and how lonely that felt. It was worse than what Kennedy had done to us, the knowledge that Ben and I might not be friends anymore.
On the third day, my parents came into my bedroom and closed the door so my sister wouldn’t hear. “We’re worried about you, Jamie,” my mom said. “Something’s not right. We just got off the phone with Mrs. Nakamura and she said that Ben has been depressed, listless. We said we’d noticed the same with you. Now, here’s what we want to know. And we trust you, so we’re going to ask you this. And I hope you know how much we love you, and how nothing that you do will ever change that.”
“OK,” I said, slow to keep up.
“Are you and Ben experimenting with drugs?” she asked, both she and my father leaning in, like I was going to whisper some secret in their ears. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. I was good. I was a good kid. I kept telling myself this while they waited for me to respond, that I was a good kid, that I was good.
“We’re not taking drugs, Mom,” I told her, and they both let out this long exhalation, like they were so relieved and things could be normal again. “I’m just nervous, you know, about my grades, about school, about getting into a good college. Ben is, too. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Then they went on and on about how proud of me they were, how much they loved me, and how, no matter what, I was going to make something of myself, I was going to find a way to contribute to the world and make my mark. And it made me love them so much, I wanted to cry. But I also wanted them to leave, wanted them far, far away from me. Then they hugged me, and then they were gone.
Only once I was sure that they were gone for good did I pick up a controller and start playing.
The next day, Kennedy was back at school, sitting at our table in the art room before Ben or I had even arrived. We stood frozen in the doorway until a kid behind us bumped into us and pushed us farther into the room. Kennedy had a spectacular black eye, and two of his fingers were taped together with a splint. And this made me happy. It gave me the strength to walk over to that table and sit down.
“Long time no see, pussies,” Kennedy said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He looked sunken, sallow. He looked like a zombie.
Neither Ben nor I said a word. We went over to the work table and retrieved our African masks, which had hardened and which we were now painting. Mrs. Banks lectured Kennedy on how far behind he was and then plopped a lump of clay in front of him. After she went back to her recliner, he took a wire brush and simply stabbed the clay, over and over again, slowly.
We worked in silence, only the sounds of John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks playing on the boombox.
Toward the end of class, Kennedy leaned toward us. “I want you guys to come over again. Tonight. I want to show you something.”
“No way,” Ben said. “Never again.”
“You have to come,” Kennedy said. “If you don’t come, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
I couldn’t even speak, couldn’t look at Kennedy. Ben said, “Never. We’re never coming over.” And I think if Ben wasn’t there that day, I would have gone over to Kennedy’s that night.
“If you are not at my house tonight …” Kennedy said, but that was it. He just stared at us. He jabbed the brush into the clay and then walked out of the classroom, ten minutes before class was over. Mrs. Banks didn’t even notice.
“We’re not going, OK?” Ben said to me, and he touched my arm. He held it there until I looked at him. “OK?” he said. “We are not going.”
“OK,” I finally said, nodding. “OK.”
At the end of school, we were certain that Kennedy would be standing next to our car, waiting for us, but he wasn’t there. We got into the car as quickly as possible and actually burned rubber getting out of the parking lot, the back of the car swerving for a few seconds until I straightened it out. As we drove, I looked over at Ben, who was frowning.
“Can I come over today?” he asked me, and I thought about it for a few seconds.
“OK,” I said. “Yeah.”
We locked ourselves in our room and played Double Dragon, punching and kicking and whipping every cartoony thug that got in our way. We stood with our backs to each other and beat the living shit out of everyone that tried to hurt us. It was too easy to be therapeutic, but it didn’t make us feel worse. And a few hours passed, and my mom called us for dinner. “Are you OK?” Ben asked when I turned off the system.
“Not really,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Me either,” he said. “But it’ll get better, OK?”
“You’re my best friend,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it. I guess I needed him to know it.
“You’re my best friend, too,” he said, smiling.
At the dinner table, over meatloaf and green bean casserole, my parents asked us about our day, and we talked about the masks we’d made in art class, how Ben’s kind of looked like a fish-man and how mine was supposed to be a wolf but looked more like an anteater. And my sister talked about gymnastics, some tumbling technique she’d learned, but it was hard to picture it from her description. And then the phone rang, and I jumped up to get it, walking back into the kitchen for the phone.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Jamie,” Kennedy said, and I felt my whole body go numb. I dropped the phone, and it swung there on its cord for a few seconds.
“Who is it?” my dad asked. “Tell them it’s dinnertime.”
I picked up the phone again, and there was silence on the other end. Finally Kennedy said, “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I said.
“You didn’t come,” he said, and he sounded sad, betrayed.
“No,” I said.
“I shot my dad,” he said. “I just did it. With a shotgun. While he was watching TV. It was … it was pretty horrible.”
I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to start laughing. “I really did it. That’s what I wanted you and Ben to see. I wanted you to see it. I wanted all three of us to be here. But you didn’t come.”
“You’re lying,” I said.
“I’m not lying, motherfucker,” he said, his voice finally taking on some kind of life. “I just called the cops. They’re sending someone over here. That’s why I was calling too. I wondered if your parents could get me a good lawyer. I need someone really good. I’m eighteen, Jamie. I’m an adult. I’m fucked.”
“You’re lying,” I said, “to fuck with me and Ben.”
“Fair enough,” he said. I heard sirens on his end of the line.
“I wish you had come over,” he said. “I liked you guys. You and Ben. I thought you were OK.”
“I have to go, Kennedy,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “They’re here anyways.”
I hung up the phone and walked back into the dining room.
“Who the heck was that?” my dad asked.
I looked at Ben, and his eyes were so wide open.
“Some guy in our math class,” I said. “He wanted to know what the homework was.”
“Well, your food’s getting cold,” my mom said.
I sat next to Ben, and we both pushed our food around, listening to my parents talk to each other, their voices happy.
“Can Ben spend the night?” I asked them suddenly.
“On a school night?” my mom replied.
“Please?” I asked.
“If it’s OK with his parents, then yeah, OK,” my mother aid. Under the table, Ben reached for my hand and squeezed it. He held on to it for the rest of dinner, and it steadied me. It kept me inside my own body, because I wanted to float away again.
In my room, the door locked, I told Ben about Kennedy, what he said he’d done.
“I don’t think he’s lying,” Ben said.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” I said. “I guess.”
We were silent. And then I started crying and shaking. And Ben held on to me. “I hope he did,” I said. “I really hope he did it, and he’s not coming back.”
“Me, too,” Ben said, and now he was crying, too, but not like me, not like I was.
“I’m so sorry,” Ben said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I said.
What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.Continue reading