It’s been quiet in these parts because I’ve been writing, a lot. I’m starting to recognize that not all of my days are alike anymore, they’re no longer photocopies of one another, and the structure I once had has given way to meals at odd hours, conference calls, coffees (so many of them) and stretches of time spent writing. I have this gift of time, the one thing I can’t get back, ever, and wouldn’t it be a cruel thing to waste it worrying. Waste it without realizing that I’m writing (at least for me) the most exciting work in years.
For those of you following along, I’m writing a connected series of short stories all centered around the theme of hurt. Many of them have been collected here (amidst some of my non-fiction pieces), and I’m thrilled to explore topics that were previously verboten in my writing. I sometimes cringe at some of the coarseness of the language and characters, but for now I’m writing it all out. I’ll worry with editing, structure, and getting things right, later.
For now, enjoy this for your Friday. Cooking will commence this weekend!
BE THE BODY, NOT THE BOMB
One day Ellie will be strong enough to wreck things. But first she’ll watch the road shimmer, unveiling itself in degrees. Soon they will reach the ocean and she will crack shells, tear at flesh with her hands and feast on crabmeat. Her eyes will want to close, but she won’t allow it. She’s determined to see. She must see. Hold on to the hours for as long as she can. Come nightfall, her body will be transferred from one man’s house to another. The deeds have been signed, the fees paid, concessions negotiated and made (and there were many), and tonight they will fasten clips in her hair, dress her in white and push her down an aisle. Ellie will do her part; she’ll prance.
When Ellie woke, her mother told her that she nearly choked on a towel the day she got married. The damn thing was lodged so far down my throat I coughed up thread. Promise me you won’t scream. Promise me you won’t make a scene.
It is 1970, and Ellie is a transaction, a man’s property, a body bought and sold.
“It’ll be another hour,” Cassidy says. “You sleep while I drive.”
“She told me not to scream. Save it for the bedroom, she says. My gift to my husband, she tells me.”
“Who told you not to scream? Who’s screaming?”
“My mother. This morning. And then she got me a script for Valium.”
“Your mother, ever the martyr. How 1950s of her.”
“Say something nice, Cass. I need to hear something nice.”
“Something nice.” Cassidy laughs.
Ellie has this habit of pulling at her hair. It’s not a yanking, but more like a desperate tug, and pulling out a clump thrills her. Imagine that, the bride bald on her wedding night. A bald bride being balled by a man she knows only slightly. A man who once called her impenetrable, but proposed anyway. Ellie laughs out loud and Cassidy glances over, shakes her head.
“There’s a lake just over there, behind the trees. We could go for a dip. Have a little smoke.” Cassidy holds up a joint, an invitation.
“I’ve got five hours. They let me out. Time served on account of good behavior.”
Cassidy cuts the engine, lights a joint and they pass it between them, taking long, measured inhales. “Let’s roll,” she says, bits of her long hair tangled in her mouth. She smells like meatballs, always, even though she’s a vegetarian. That’s not the kind of meat I need in my mouth, she often jokes at formal dinner parties, creating the kind of silences that make Ellie love her more.
“You smell like meatballs,” Ellie says.
“I fucked that guy last night. The one from school.”
“But you dropped out.”
“Good thing I did, because you know what he gives me at the end of it, right as I’m pulling on my pants? A 5×7 of his cock. All color, blown up to scale – the real deal. Wild, right?”
“A larger-than-life business card. Clearly you threw it away,” Ellie says.
“Are you kidding? It’s in the glove compartment. I’m already having flashbacks. Ellie, it was like a wall of flesh coming at me.” Cassidy’s eyes are wide and bright – a deep green under the curtain that is her hair. Ellie envies her this – hair that is unkempt, cut with her own hands. A month ago Cassidy, drunk, shouted outside Ellie’s window, “I got bangs!” Enraged, Ellie’s father stomped around the house, mumbled, “What that woman needs is some self-control. Restraints.” Ellie’s mother said, “A woman needs to know her limits.”
Intrigued, Ellie pulls out the photo, studies it, and says, “That’s not a penis, that’s a Mack truck. Why would you hold on to this?”
“Hope,” Cassidy says, and they explode into laughter.
They run through the trees down to the water like they are ten again, when Cassidy nicked red lipstick from her mother’s vanity and they spent an afternoon puckering their small mouths. When Ellie came home, her mother smacked her face, hard, and rubbed off the lipstick with the back of her hand. Back then they called Cassidy spirited, she was a rich girl who lived in a big, empty house replete with paintings of dour spinsters and rugs from the Orient. The house is still empty and Cassidy hocked a rug to a buy a car, some smoke, and a trip down South she refuses to talk about, only to say that things got pretty fucked up, really fast. Everyone calls Cassidy an undertow, but Ellie doesn’t mind this, wouldn’t mind sliding in and under, getting lost in the blue.
Ellie lives in the East, she’s trained to breathe underwater.
The sky is cloudless. The waters recede. Nothing would dare interrupt two women on the verge.
“Go on in,” Ellie says. Holds up a book, rattles it. “I’ll watch our stuff.”
“You like to watch?” Cassidy teases, lowering her bikini to a point where it’s dangerous.
“Ben’s going to need a mop and bucket to clean up after you tonight. I still can’t believe you haven’t fucked him yet.”
It’s the first time in days they’ve said the name of the man she’s committed to marry, out loud. “You needed to take it there,” Ellie says, laying her book on her stomach.
“The extreme makes an impression. Maybe it’ll make you realize that you need to run, Ell. You need to get in my car and fucking run.”
“I’d be driving, not running.”
“I’m giving you a way out.”
“How? How is getting in a car and driving who knows where with no money, out? Out is not in my plan. It’s not even on the fucking map.” Ellie rakes her hair with her hands, depleted. Finished, last call, boxed in, no way out.
“That’s your mother’s trip talking. You make your own plan. Think about what I’m saying.”
“This coming from a woman who carries a picture of a man’s cock in her car,” Ellie laughs, wipes tears.
“Hope, sister. Hope.”
Before Cassidy leaves and breaks into the water, she teases Ellie. “Imagine if I don’t make it back. Imagine if I drown.”
Today of all days this threat frightens Ellie, holds a weight it normally wouldn’t, but then she realizes that Cass would never settle for a meager curtain call. Hers is a plane hurtling into the ocean, of a great machine crackling and hissing with black fire. Of wings floating and somber men narrating the six o’clock news while we clink our forks on dinner plates and refill tumblers with gin, neat, to the brim. Cassidy is a woman who would never go quietly.
Ellie envies this – a body louder than a bomb. “You’ll make it back, you always do,” Ellie says.
“I guess that’s my trip.”
While Cassidy’s in the water, Ellie notices a man sleeping, curled up against a tree. Flies arrange themselves around his body in the shape of a halo. The trunk is a muted grey, a dying thing, drilled with holes that give the appearance of eyes, from which ants travel in and out. Ellie wants to lean in and check for signs of life, but her mother has warned her about the men. Always sleeping. Always jerking off. Don’t get too close.
It’s not like she hasn’t seen a dead body before. Remember, we live in the East.
Cassidy treads water, waves at boys on a boat, while Ellie moves away from the sleeping, possibly dead, man. She watches her friend swim toward the boys, her body inching closer, and they lift her up and onto their boat. It’s a small dingy, a scrap of wood and a prayer, but Cassidy doesn’t seem to mind. For an hour Cassidy drinks and smokes with the boys, and they too, inch closer, start rubbing her back, and suddenly Ellie is furious that her last day of freedom is being spent watching her best friend spring free.
Clothes hurled overboard. Liquor poured on Cassidy’s back. Ellie crawls down the green to see skin. How one boy grabs her hair while the other cups his hand under her chin. Ellie’s mother is right – men are forever lunging for things. Cassidy echoes. Cassidy reverberates. Cassidy thunders. Ellie never imagined a mouth could open so wide, but it does, and Ellie watches her best friend take the whole of the world, in.
Suddenly Ellie is ravenous, starving, and she gathers her things, runs up the hill and through the trees to the car. Clicks the key, fires the engine, takes it down the road. Drives the car to the only place she knows – home.
Another key, another door, up the stairs – you’re back early – and through another door into the room where all she can see is white for days. Tulle and silk, oceans of it, cover the floor.
“You’re back early,” Ellie’s mother says.
Ellie turns to her mother, takes her by the neck, pulls her in, and kisses her on the mouth, hard. Opens her mouth, devours the whole of the life before her, in. Her mother shrieks at first, recoils, but then her body falls slack, allows the kiss, the violence of it, to settle.
“Don’t worry,” Ellie says. “I won’t scream.”
Her mother stands, shaken, while Ellie fingers the dress and pulls the clips out of her hair. Hums a song she and Cassidy used to sing. Cassidy’s car is in the driveway, engine cooling.
Ellie is patient. She will wait.