***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright ©2016 Hannah Tennant-Moore
My father inherited a small fortune when his mother died, and on my twenty-first birthday, he handed me a card with a check inside. I spent a year in Paris after high school and had been living with Dad since then, working at a pottery store and reading my way through a box of moldy French novels and partying at the local bar with college students who wore American flag bandannas and U.S. Army pants even though they went to a liberal arts school in New England. “Do you dress like that because you support the wars?” I asked one of these boys, after we’d slept together. He laughed with his nose. “Whatever,” he said. I was glad I’d decided not to go to college. Better to use my father’s money to travel than sit in class with a bunch of morons. And now I had enough money that I didn’t need to make decisions at all. My father beamed as I gazed in astonishment at the four zeroes on his check, proud of his ability to provide for his child. I started driving around the country with a tent and sleeping bag in the back of my car, settling in whatever town could hold my interest for a few months, sometimes doing business transcriptions or working in coffee shops. I lived frugally to make money that wasn’t mine last. So I was shocked to find myself penniless one day, unable to pay for my sandwich at a deli in Carpinteria. I called my father, and he provided me with a few more years of choicelessness.
It was nearly dark when I hung up the phone. I’d have to spend the night in this maybe seedy, maybe idyllic coastal California town. I went to a bar to find out about campgrounds in the area. A guy looked me up and down when I walked in. Then he started a game of pool. He had thick arms and goldfish tattoos just above his elbows; pale, pockmarked cheeks; a dainty nose. His jeans were too short and his legs were stubby. I was not attracted to his appearance. But I was attracted to him. I drank three pints of Guinness and watched him win four games. His brown eyes were open wide, so he could watch his shot and stare at me at the same time. His look reduced me, not unpleasantly, to sex. When I got up from my stool to walk to the bathroom, I felt the cotton of my underpants shifting over my buttocks, my asshole tingling and contracting as if I were lying facedown in the sun after swimming in icy water.
When he walked to the back patio, I followed him out and asked for a cigarette. The arbor above our heads was interlaced with broken Christmas lights. They flickered dizzyingly as he lit a Camel for me. I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I winced with each inhale; tobacco is one of the few drugs I hate. “You know you’re sexy, thank god,” he said. “So we don’t need to talk about it all night.” I was wearing a short skirt with ripped black pantyhose and a tight tank top with a ladybug embroidered over my left nipple. My breasts are small and my legs are short, but I have a perky ass and symmetrical features. Jared was right. I love my body. I like my face, too. The way I look has been the easiest thing to be happy about since I became an adult. It’s not that I’m a knockout, but you don’t have to be a knockout to be desired. My appearance is good enough, one thing I don’t worry about. “I don’t like talking, anyway,” I said. I didn’t mean to sound slutty; I was being honest. Jared dipped a key into a small baggie, held the white powder under my nose.
After the bar closed, I hopped on the handlebars of his bike. Jared stopped short in front of a turning car and I flew forward. The heels of my boots weren’t sturdy enough to support the impact of my fall. My ankles twisted as I spiraled to the ground, landing on my back with my feet crossed. Jared grinned as he helped me up. “Took yourself a tumble, didn’t ya darlin’?” I touched my face. Smooth, dry. I straddled the front wheel and hopped back onto the handlebars. His breath warmed my neck as he raised himself off the bike seat to hurtle us through a thicket of fog-softened headlights. When I woke up in his bed the next day, it looked like someone had sewn a piece of midnight blue fabric onto my hip with yellow thread. Jared shook his pillow out of its case, filled the case with ice and held it to my side. “I like you so much,” he whispered in my ear. He caught the back of my neck in his teeth. Icy waves lapped at my hip. His teeth tickled my skin. I got dizzy, free of thought.
I stayed with Jared for the next few days. We stumbled into a stranger’s party and danced until dawn and skinnydipped in the ocean under a huge orange moon and set out on bikes with beer and sandwiches, riding equestrian trails through woods that led to sea cliffs, taking breaks to have sex in eucalyptus groves. Here was an answer to the question of what to do with my life.
I found a room for rent in a tiny, lopsided cottage owned by a forty-year-old bachelor who had blown off his right hand in a drunken fireworks accident. I wondered if Ron was always sheepish or if the accident had made him that way. The rent was negligible. I got the impression he wanted someone around, just in case. A week after I moved in, I peeked into the garage that we were not allowed to use. Piles and piles of lace-up shoes. Ron only wore slip-ons. The accident had happened years ago, but maybe he was still hoping to learn. Or to find someone to do the tying for him. In any case, I wasn’t worried about finding a job anytime soon. The money I had left from my dad felt like a lot to someone who had never really thought about money.
So, when I wasn’t with Jared, I had plenty of time to indulge my sad obsession: the torture of so-called terror suspects, meaning mostly poor, Muslim men whom corrupt warlords handed over to the U.S. in exchange for bounties. Not that you could talk like that in public or you were seen as not sufficiently distressed over 9/11. A handful of lunatics succeeded in changing the way regular people thought about sadistic violence. Now you had to have a self-serving reason to be against torture—it was ineffective; it made it more likely that captured American soldiers would be mistreated. I learned these reasons because I had to. If I said, even at a bar in a liberal town in Southern California, that my opposition to torture was based in a feeling—such as the feeling that it’s wrong for one human being to inflict as much pain as possible on another human being—then I was pitied for being idealistic and sentimental.
My father taught me to anguish over mass suffering I could do nothing about. Throughout my childhood, he spent several hours a day reading terrible news stories, which he talked about throughout dinner, rides to and from school, grocery shopping. My mother would tell him not to disturb a child; my father would say privileged people not wanting to be disturbed was the cause of the problem. Since my father never did anything with his knowledge except get angry and then depressed, I thought my mother might have a point. But after she abandoned us for a pretty dimwit, I sided with my father: my mother was frivolous; my father’s angst was purposeful and important. In high school, I read obsessively about slavery, the Holocaust, the Stasi, the Gulag, the Chinese oppression of Tibet, the Gaza Strip. I used to wonder what I would do if I lived in a country that imprisoned people in massive, indiscriminate sweeps (Rumsfeld’s leaflets “falling like snow” over Afghanistan, promising “wealth and power beyond your dreams” in exchange for turning in supposed enemy combatants) and tortured them without ever charging them with crimes (the legal memos with graphic descriptions of waterboarding, stress positions, beatings to inflict maximum distress without causing organ failure or death). Now I knew what I would do: feel rage, shame, disgust, loneliness, helplessness, sorrow, despair, great and debilitating hatred for everyone who did not also feel these things.
A young woman from Peace Works! knocked on my door in Carpinteria one afternoon, asking if I had a minute for peace. What she really wanted was money, but at least she was out doing something. So I tried canvassing, too. But I hated asking strangers for money that I wasn’t even convinced helped all that much. Peace Works! lobbied politicians to support their initiatives. I had no faith in politics; the first presidential election I voted in came down to the will of a single American who happened to be on the Supreme Court. And even at Peace Works! human rights was not a popular cause. The fastest way to get people to give—other canvassers advised me—was to make an economic argument against Bush’s policies, something I couldn’t have done even if I wanted to. You had to slip in the human rights stuff later, once you’d hooked them. The same way that, if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t want to start off with a diatribe against torture and indefinite detention or you could turn off a lot of potential readers. Maybe you could slip the political stuff in later, after you’d made a particular Muslim character really sympathetic, perhaps in an unlikely feminist way, like he collected bits of charcoal to make rudimentary writing implements for poor, oppressed schoolgirls. Then you could have him detained and tortured and readers might care.
I understood the method. I just couldn’t abide it. After the twentieth door was slammed in my face as soon as I mentioned humane treatment for so-called enemy combatants, I quit. Reading the news alone was even less depressing than trying to do something about it.
I met a few girls in Carpinteria that I liked to go out and drink with, but I couldn’t imagine becoming really close with them. They weren’t up against anything, having spent their lives running between the mountains and the sea. When I complained to one of them about how difficult it was just to be a decent person, she suggested I go to the beach, listen to the ocean, and “soak up the inspiration.” Southern California is a great place to soak up ethereal nouns.
But Jared suffered. He was real. He read David Foster Wallace with a dictionary, taking notes in a journal. He read the way he did everything: desperately, driven by too much need for things to be too different than they were. He was the only person—aside from my father—with whom I could talk about the war on terror (another ethereal noun). We had feelings, not arguments. Only an insane person could argue intellectually about something like torturing and jailing people for years without ever charging them with a crime. Which of course makes me a very ineffective political thinker. I am sentimental. I am full sentiment. The first act of sadistic violence I witnessed was a crow pecking a baby bat to death in my backyard. I gave the bat a funeral at which I read a memorial poem (“I will never forget you little bat/It was so mean of the crow to do that”) and then had to stay home from school for two days because I couldn’t stop crying. I was probably six. My father was proud; my mother was worried.
Jared was sentimental, too. Songs and the newspaper could easily make him cry. He read the New York Times online every day, keeping his finger glued to the articles as he scrolled down, so that his computer would not register a click and bar him from reading more than his allotted ten free articles a month. He read not for facts but for stories: what was happening to regular people? It’s hard not to be compelled by suffering when you’re suffering yourself. But if I was paralyzed by my sentiments, Jared was at war with his. Alcohol was the quickest way to win.
Jared was the drummer for a mediocre rockabilly band that played the local bars most weekends; he made his living selling drugs. He did drop-offs at dawn, midnight, noon. Couldn’t afford to disappoint his clientele. Carpinteria was a small town with a lot of dealers. Susan was my introduction to this clientele, a few months after I’d settled down in Carp. She was petite and blonde and full-bosomed, wearing red lipstick and a tight sweater, standing next to us at the bar one night, demanding that Jared buy her a drink. “I’m broke,” she said, sticking out her lower lip. Jared took a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her. I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We went outside and danced to the Cure, which was blasting from speakers on the back patio. Susan found us, shimmied against Jared, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and took long, dramatic drags as she told me how far back she and Jerrie go, that she’s been stealing his cigarettes at the end of a long night for years. When she went inside to get another drink, I told Jared to stop flirting with that whore, hating my stereotypically competitive tone, hating him for making me assume it.
“Suze? You’re trippin’. I fucked her once. But that was years ago. Stop trippin’, girl.”
To Drunk Jared I was just one more needy female, as in, “Woman, you are a handful,” and “Girl, get off my back.” He turned his back to me. I turned on my heels. Pride dragged me toward home. After two blocks, I remembered that I was clacking toward a dark apartment where I’d hiccough and sob into my pillow, trying not to wake my sad roommate. But when I got back to the bar, Jared was gone. I searched wide-eyed, clutching the sides of my dress, forcing myself not to break into a run.
“Are you looking for the guy in the red shirt?” the bartender asked me. Yes, I was, that adorable red shirt with the bluebird over the left breast pocket. “He took off. He was really trashed. Better let him sleep it off.” When Jared called me the next afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet at a diner, I told him that I would never see him again. He left a present on my windowsill every day for the next week—earrings, chocolates, flowers. Stupid things, the perfect things. Eventually I agreed to let him take me to a Wilco concert in L.A. “I’ll be your designated driver,” he said. After the show, he drove us back to his house and we jumped on his trampoline under the stars, Santa Ana winds somersaulting down the piney mountains. He fed me avocado and tomato sandwiches in his bed. We had sex three times and slept entangled till noon.
One night, I had two orgasms and he had none. I kept trying, desperate for proof of his attraction to me, reminding him of how he used to come so quickly, too quickly. “Because you were brand new,” he said, yawning into my hair. The next day, I bought a pair of lace-up, knee-high boots for two hundred bucks. When Jared saw me wearing them, he said, “Where’d you get those boots? The Sexy Store?” I cringed; he knew I was trying to please him. The first time I wore the boots, the right heel came off in chunks on the dance floor. I left a trail of rubber everywhere I went.
And it turned out Jared didn’t give a shit about my sexy boots. He cared about seeing me from every possible angle, under the brightest of lights, his nose an inch from my skin. “But, but—” I’d protest as he parted my legs or rolled me onto my stomach. “Come on,” he’d say. “Let me see you.” Attraction had nothing to do with who came when; it was access to knowledge that could not be gained from any other kind of interaction. I felt free with Jared, nothing to hold back.
Most Friday nights, we’d split a bottle of Bushmill’s and ride our bikes into town. As we were walking into a bar one night, Jared put his foot out and I went straight down, too drunk to try to break my fall. Jared was laughing, but it was the laugh of not wanting the feeling that would come when the laughter ended. I raised myself onto all fours, waited for my nose to stop smarting. He put his hands under my armpits and pulled me up. “You okay?” he asked, almost scared. Something big and metal was clamped over my face. I was afraid that if I tried to talk my voice would come out funny. He moved my nose from side to side and kissed me on the cheek, satisfied that no further action was required. “You’re okay.” We went into the bar. Jared ordered drinks with a series of elaborate hand gestures. He sauntered to the pool table. I went into the bathroom. While I was sitting on the toilet, I took my phone out of my purse and called my father. I told him I was in love. So he could be happy for me. “It’s three in the morning,” he said. “Why don’t you get some sleep and let’s talk tomorrow.” The fear in my father’s voice woke me up like a hand over my mouth. He was normally so supportive of my adventures, encouraging me to tell him everything, he wouldn’t judge. My mania about Jared must have sounded more dangerous than my usual enthusiasms.
When I left the bathroom, Jared was hitting the balls with the stick, stalking the table, scratching the crack of his ass. He was powerful and essential and doing just fine. I was in love, meaning I was addicted to a specific body; I was afraid.
A few days later, I tried to reassure my father—and myself—about the state of my new life in California by applying for an internship at the local paper. I had never dreamed of being a journalist, but this seemed like one way I might be able to put my sentiments to use.
The newspaper office was marked by a small sign that looked like an ad for a newspaper in a children’s comic book: an illustration of a typewriter spewing a page that said Carp Weekly in bubbly letters. The interior was a fluorescent-lit room crammed with people, desks, books, papers, phones, computers covered in post-it notes, fax machines, mugs, stale bagels. The chaos relaxed me. The woman who interviewed me looked damaged in a way that made her dull and approachable. She introduced herself as Sally— no last name, no title. She was impressed with my writing samples, even more so when I told her they were papers from a high school English class. The lie I’d planned—about having dropped out of the last semester of college to care for a dying parent—felt unnecessary. In fact, Sally seemed glad to learn I hadn’t gone to college, like it gave me some secret cachet. She even used the word “self-taught,” which sounded pretentious, but I did read and obsessively analyze my thoughts all the time—was that being “self- taught”? I learned from the card Sally handed me at the end of the interview that she was the managing editor.
The next day, she called and offered me not the unpaid internship, but an actual job. They happened to be looking for someone to run the obituary section. I suggested that I might not be qualified. “Believe me, you’re overqualified,” Sally said. “The job is mostly dealing with crazies. You’d be great.” I set up an interview with the publisher, which Sally suggested was mostly a formality. Ronnie asked me my favorite authors, was condescendingly impressed. Nine bucks an hour, no benefits; no wonder they were willing to overlook my inexperience. But I liked the idea of having the title Assistant Editor.
They gave me a cubicle on the newsroom floor. Sally fielded my first phone call by way of training. “Thank you for your interest in Carp Weekly. I have to stress right off the bat that we do not publish typical obituaries. These are more like personal essays— stories rather than a rundown of events and accomplishments. If you would prefer to run a standard obituary, I am more than happy to refer you to our advertising department.” She hung up the phone, showed me the coffee machine and the microwave, left me to set up my email.
As I was struggling with an Ethernet card, a middle-aged man came out of the office next to mine, and sans intro—the kind of shorthand I soon learned to associate with him—started talking to me about a woman who had been murdered by her ex-husband a few days ago. “Been divorced for twenty-five years. At least the douchebag never found anyone else to hate. Small consolation, I grant.” He was pale and lanky with faintly humped shoulders, but his voice made him seem like he tossed pianos for fun. “She was a retired teacher, had a little house with a garden, named Effie or something like that. You get the picture.” His phone rang. He returned to his desk in two strides. “Yello,” he belted. “Thanks for the callback. So listen, what the fuck is up with this cat running for city council?” Less than a second elapsed between the end of his phone call and his reappearance at my desk. “So the woman’s got a sister. Only kin mentioned in the daily. What I’d do, if I were you, is look up that sister.” Joe carried on the conversation like this, bounding between my desk and his, sometimes picking up his thoughts midsentence.
I was dismayed by how easy it was to track down the sister’s name and phone number. I was often nervous calling a friend to ask if she wanted to get a drink when I was alone in my house, and now I was supposed to dial a stranger and ask if she wanted to write an essay for me on her recently murdered sister, while I was surrounded by coworkers with hard, avid faces, jamming down computer keys and talking quickly, loudly, confidently into headsets (“Carp Weekly, Bill speaking”). I told myself I could quit tomorrow, just make the call, there was nothing riding on this. But every time I was about to press the last digit, I panicked and hung up, fidgeted elaborately with my empty Rolodex. At last, I took my purse and slipped out the back door. I made the call from the parking lot. When the sister answered, I repeated Sally’s spiel about our obituaries being more like personal essays. The sister asked my name, told me how relieved she was that I called. She wanted so much for there to be an obituary about Barb but her eyesight was bad and she could no longer type. Was there any way—and please tell her if this was inexcusably rude, she was not entirely in her right mind at the moment—but perhaps, maybe, was there any way she could tell me her memories and I could type them up?
I started offering this dictation service whenever I requested an essay. I made the calls from my cubicle once I realized that everyone was too harried to notice anyone else. For a while, the work suited me in the way it suited Joe to be a reporter. There was no fight in him, even when he was screaming into his phone, “You wanna hear libel? Go on and sue me and hear what this town has to say about your quote unquote business. You know, pal, it’s never too late to stop wasting your life being an asshole.” He slammed down the phone, stood in his doorway eating a doughnut, shouted at me from across the newsroom. “We gotta get something good for the Iraq vet who shot himself and his dad. Look up his girlfriend. Word of advice: don’t mention a goddamn thing about the Middle East or IEDs or PTSD. You just let her remember him—color of his cuticles, favorite license plate number, all that shit. Then she might actually open up to me when I call.”
I loved being near Joe’s devotion, and I liked being implicated in the socially condoned spectacle of unhinged death-grief. It made me feel less alone, a kind of selfishness I accepted in myself.
Jared and I sometimes ran into this group of Mexican guys—bellies pouring over baggy jeans, belted several inches below their waists; cartoonish tattoos on their necks and forearms; confusingly lovely eyelashes. The first time we saw these guys at a bar, Jared lifted his chin in unsmiling greeting and wrapped his arm around my waist. “Some douchebags I went to junior high with,” he whispered into my hair. Jared was too small and pretty and gregarious for junior high—irresistible prey. I imagined him as a kid, sitting alone in the backyard after school, waiting for his father to get home from work, plucking a thick blade of grass and holding it taut between his thumbs. In tenth grade, he dropped out of school to go on tour with the Grateful Dead. His father gave him three hundred bucks and wished him luck. Jared hitchhiked and begged and slept in city parks for the next two years. As the douchebags looked me up and down, Jared tightened his grip around my waist and pulled me against him with a short jerk. I was the whistle the grass made when his small self blew against its sharp edge.
Jared would sometimes use his belt on me, never against my will. He didn’t hit hard. He’d hold my arms down and place his teeth around my nipple, poised to clamp down. “Stop, stop, stop,” I’d say and he’d tell me to shut up, backhanding my jaw. He’d order me to take my clothes off, but it never became more sexual than that. This wasn’t about sex. It was about having power over life. Jared wanted to believe he had some and I wanted to give all mine away. I wanted bruises, empirical proof of the destructiveness of emotions. The first time he hit me too hard, I winced and put my hand to my jaw. He fell on me with a look of terror and wet my face with kisses. “Sweetie, baby, oh no, did I hurt you?”
Because yes and no were both the wrong answer, we kept pushing the limit. We wanted more—longer strangulations, redder marks, deeper and murkier troughs of shame and forgiveness. Sometimes when Jared got up to pee in the night and I watched his buttocks moving toward the toilet, exhausted and trusting, the whitest thing in the room, I felt a tenderness I could not bear without violence. It was the same feeling that kept me awake at night in junior high, scratching at my chest until I drew blood. Sometime in seventh grade, I developed a nearly constant irritation in my chest, like tiny claws scratching me from the inside. My annoyment knot, I called it, but only to myself. Some nights I’d claw at my chest until I felt warm wetness beneath my fingernails; then I’d lie awake thinking that there was something seriously wrong with me and I needed to find the right person to make it better. The knot sometimes compelled me to wear something weird to school—a flowered shower cap or jeans with one leg cut off and the other long or leotards snapped over the crotch of my jeans instead of under them. There had to be something you could do.
My dad got me the Liz Phair album when I was in high school. He thought I would like it, and I did. I blasted it every time I borrowed his car, affecting her girlish earnestness, just self-conscious enough to pretend toward irony. Never realized I was so dirty and dry, ‘til he knocked me down, started dragging me around, in the back of his convertible car. And I liked it. I liked it more and more. Jared’s butt cheeks were almost repulsive in their vulnerability—disproportionately small, cuddled against one another, the skin a mottled red sprouting long, curly, brown hairs. I was entrusted with their care. When Jared gripped my neck and banged my head against my flimsy bedroom wall, my tenderness was forced out of my chest and into the world.
Once I tried to explain to Jared this need to do violence to my love. Then I giggled, hoping I sounded like Liz Phair. I didn’t see any connection between my words and the other kind of violence that distressed me so deeply. Neither did Jared, apparently. He was hard in an instant. He gripped my shoulders and pressed his open mouth to my collarbone and pushed inside me. For a long time, neither of us moved. In my mind, a small wave tumbled over itself to fall on dry sand, then retreated into the deep vast blue. Tumbled, retreated, tumbled again.