picture ted bundy with a whisk and a head of red hair

When you ask me what influenced the creation of a novel about intergenerational mental illness and abuse, our sexist perception of the “good girl”, and the lengths children will go to forge a family, I offer this…influence doesn’t have a single point of origin.

 

1.

Listening to Ted Bundy for two days in a cold room in Southern California does things to you. You play the interviews over and over until Bundy’s slow, assured drawl beings to disturb you because it’s oddly comforting. You’re surprised by his voice, the ease, and coolness of it. The patrician charm of it. How he considers his words before he says them, how he hits his consonants like a melody. For a moment, divorce yourself from the man who took meticulous care of the skulls he collected, how he witnessed the skin pale and crack. If you can forget the monster that is Ted Bundy, you might think to yourself that this is the sort of man you’d want to meet. Remember, Bundy was a man who once studied law. Bundy saved countless lives as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline.

There exists no binary. Watch him. He’s witty, self-deprecating, and beguiling.

Let’s just get a map out, he says when asked to recall where he buried the remains of the women he murdered. Let’s see what we have. We have to get down to business here. I want to be as specific as I can be. Was it a burial, an officer asks. Yes, yes, a burial, Bundy affirms. I gave them a burial.

This is the savagery of the psychopath: the ease in which they assimilate and shift masks based on whom they need to manipulate. They’re brilliant at mimicry. Studies suggest they have the capacity for empathy; it’s just a muscle they willfully allow to atrophy. It’s easier to feel nothing that bears the weight of guilt, sorrow, remorse, compassion, and empathy. It’s easier to be cruel and it’s work to be kind.

When I write I start from the place of a character. I build out an entire person, the complexities of their world, and I follow what they do on the page. For my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, I knew almost all of my characters before I got to the page. When I created Kate, the educated, genteel, soft-spoken baker, she was only fully realized after I locked myself in a room with Ted Bundy. Because it’s horrifying when the kind person you’ve known for years, the blushing girl behind the counter serving your muffin, is actually callous and calculating; she’s someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the depraved, feels joy when others are suffering. It’s scarier when you don’t see your villain coming.

This is what all those women must have thought. When Bundy feigned broken limbs and disability to lure women to his car, they probably thought this is someone who is in pain rather than a monster who delights in inflicting it. Imagine the space between Bundy, the charming, handsome man on crutches pleading for help and the man who takes a lead pipe to your head. That’s the terror.

It was only when I met Ted Bundy through a computer screen did I see Kate, a woman who uses a veneer of innocence and society’s sexism to navigate through monstrous acts, relatively unscathed.

2.

Who didn’t fall in love with Alice Morgan, a prodigy who studied dark matter distribution and murdered her parents and dog just to see if she could get away with it? A brilliant woman, a player of games, although I imagine that Vegas would fail to challenge and amuse her because she’s someone who would usurp the adage the house always wins. Alice Morgan would’ve torched the joint before the first hand was even dealt.

I struggled with sex in my book. How much of it do my characters use to get what they want? Basic Instinct bored me because it was all sex and no intrigue. There are four women in my book, all in various stages of beauty and undress, and while some of the characters use sex as an obvious weapon and as bait, some, like Alice, simply offer a suggestion of it. Sex is not on the table but it’s not entirely off, either. It’s one of many weapons in her arsenal that she’d use if and when the occasion called. At first glance, perhaps you wouldn’t think Alice to be conventionally hot (personally, I’d disagree) and maybe her body wouldn’t put you on pause, but there’s something about her that sucks you in. Like a black hole. Her ferocity and intellect are bewitching. However, it’s that ease — like Bundy and fly tape: a seemingly harmless object that will seduce, trap, and kill you — that excites you. There’s something sexually thrilling in that dichotomy (the harmless and the murderous), which made Alice an easy model for two of my characters, doppelgangers Kate and Gillian.

3.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old deaf artist who painted savagery on his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, to undo the harm that portraits of refined gentry had done, and the artist was something of a fakir drawing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all I can remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth. — From Chapter 1 of my novel.

Years ago I visited the Prado during a storm. All because I wanted to see Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. Late in life, Goya painted 14 paintings of madness and the macabre on the walls of his home. They represented his fear of insanity, his bleak view of humanity, and the fulfillment of our darkest urges. Imagine being greeted with the barbaric and terrifying when you stepped into someone’s dining or living room.

Possibly the most iconic of the Black Paintings is a portrait of Saturn devouring his son. I remember standing in front of the canvas for nearly an hour, mesmerized by something so utterly horrifying, but at the same time I thought of something different. What if Saturn was protecting his son from the evil and treachery of mankind?

It’s the dual nature of murder as hate and murder as sacrificial love that drove me to write some of the horrible things the mothers in my novel do to their children. Many of the characters in Follow Me Into the Dark suffer from mental illness. When Ellie is temporarily institutionalized for trying to bathe an infant Kate in bleach, she rationalizes her heinous act as one of love:

In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.

“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero, but I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”

They are wrong, of course, unimaginably so, but it was only until I saw what a parent can do to a child (see also Euripides’ Medea) through the lens of illness and insanity did I conceive of the dual acts of hate and love the mothers in my book inflict on their progeny.

4.

What happens to children who are isolated from parental love, locked away in an isolated boarding school in South Africa with nothing other than books and a vivid imagination to give them shelter? Sheila Kohler, in her exceptional novel, Cracks, balances a landscape of ethereal beauty with cold, cruel violence.

One hot summer, a beautiful aristocrat, Fiamma, vanishes into the veld. Decades later, at a reunion, thirteen members of tightly-knit swim team gather to reminisce on the weeks leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. As the memories and secrets unravel, we learn the horrific, violent lengths adolescents will go to when faced with obsession, jealousy, sex, and maternal longing. I loved this book primarily because the children are lost, rudderless, their sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother comes from the books they read. Their barnacle-level attachment to their swim coach, Miss G., demonstrates how desperately children need familial love. The characters in my look don’t understand love because they’ve lived in homes robbed of it. So they try (and fail) to create a home and this failure is their ultimate devastation.


I’m never quite sure whether people are interested in what goes into the creation of a book, so perhaps this is merely an exercise in me documenting what drove me to write my second book and debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark.

Upcoming Events: I’ll be in New York next week for some readings. Come on down!

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how I start a novel…

Lately, I’ve been feeling allergic to blogging and social media. While it’s a tool I use in my professional (non-writing) life, it’s one I’ve abandoned when it comes to my personal life. I’ve spent years putting a lot of myself out there and over the past year I’ve felt a need to pull everything back. I’ve taken most of my channels private, and as you can see from the lack of updates on this space, my heart isn’t necessarily in it. So, I’ve decided to only publish when it feels right. And this morning, as I’m starting the fourth revision of my third book, I thought it might be helpful to give you a peek into my writing process. I hope you find this helpful! 🙂

And yes, this is me, before coffee. And the writer I blanked on? Denis Johnson.

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if anyone tells you that writing novels gets easier over time, they’re crazy

new novel

The final draft of my second book, and yes, I still print things out. 

 

When you write a book, your first thought is: Can I do this? Can I be obsessed with something to a degree that it’ll sustain me through hundreds of pages of revisions, years of deleting and rewriting drafts? Will I allow characters to inhabit my life for a period that doesn’t have a defined end? Can I write this without considering the business of publishing? Can I write knowing this may not be sold or read?

You ask yourself whether you can see the story and the fate of your characters all the way through. And after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, now that the book is written and you’ve exorcised your obsession by committing your characters to a page, you then ask yourself: How do I get better? You keep asking yourself that question every time you come to the page.

I’ve written and sold two books and I assure you the process does not get easier, but I often think about the line from the film Heat, when Michael Cheritto’s character says, For me, the action is the juice. For me, the reward is worth the stretch. I could probably offer more of an astute philosophy, quotes from great writers on the process of writing books, but it all boils down to this: the reward is the composition of the work itself, rather than external validation, which may or may not happen (in fact, I’m expecting criticism of my second book due to the nature of the violence), praise or criticism that is fleeting and soon forgettable. You write what consumes you. You write to make sense of the world. You write to explain it. You write to make your voice heard when it feels you’re the smallest person in the room.

Last year when I moved to California, I wrote my third book in a month. The velocity shocked me, honestly, because it took me eight years to start a second book, two years to write and revise it, and nearly a year to sell it. A new book for me is akin to bloodletting–it’s never easy, it’s often confusing and painful, but then there’s that MOMENT. The switch. When the story falls into place and your characters surprise you in the smallest (and arguably most powerful) of ways. My book always starts one way and ends up becoming what I hadn’t planned or intended. I lost count of how many times I gut-renovated my second book–the structure was problematic, the payoff non-existent, and a few of the characters felt one-note.

After three years, I found a structure that actually worked. And this happened AFTER I sold the book.

This is all to say that writing a book doesn’t come easily to me. So when I sent my first crude draft to my agent, he wrote back that it was way too dark–even for me. And more importantly, the story wasn’t as powerful as it could be. So I revised again, and two more times. Cut 100 pages. Added 70, and the like. And even when I sent the latest draft to my agent the book didn’t feel like it was working. The only section I felt drawn to are what I call the “Alice stories” — a series of connected stories documenting the strange relationship between an adult woman in New York and a depressed teenager in Los Angeles. It deals with the voyeuristic nature of social media, what we edit and reveal, and how strangers are sometimes profoundly connected than the people in your “real” life.

My agent came back and confirmed what I already knew. After an hour of brainstorming, we both agreed that I needed to cut nearly the entire book except for 40 pages. He then timidly suggested I do the one thing I loathe doing — a plot outline.

I’m not knocking the plot outline or outlines in general. They’re often necessary. In what felt like the thirtieth revision of my second novel, I had to map out the timeline and character actions so I wasn’t confused. But here’s the thing–I write from the point-of-view of the character. I’m not a plot writer. I obsess over fictitious people to the extent that I know their whole world down to whether they can stomach mushrooms, mittens, or clowns (three things I hate).  I create character maps and sketches. I pin images of people so I can see my character. Then, and only then, do I let them go out into the world (or in the actual case, the page) and see what they do. I write stories scene by scene and the characters advance the plot.

I’ve rarely engineered the reverse. So plot outlines, for me, are the equivalent of taking spin classes when I’ve always done yoga. I’ll invariably fall off the bike, parts of my body will be sore, and I’ll likely make a mess of things. This may sound crazy but drawing out a plot is harder than writing the actual book (at least for me). But I did it because it was necessary and I need to exercise different muscles to get this book where it needs to go.

In four pages over two exhausting days, I mapped out my third book. I only “know” one of the characters, Alice, but I don’t even know her completely. I know these characters in parts, so directing them forward felt Herculean. But I did it, and my agent was kind and gave incredible feedback.

So here I go. I’m starting a new novel next week, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The book follows the strange obsessive relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a fifteen-year-old suicidal teenager, who happens to be the daughter of a film star on the decline. The book combines the voices and locations I know (New York, an adult woman) with those I’m slowly discovering (Los Angeles, teenagers). And with everything I write, there’s always something nefarious at work. Characters are flawed. Bad things happen. But unlike anything I’ve written previously, this story will end on a note of hope.

Because sometimes light doesn’t exist, even if it’s not within your reach.

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the first hurt

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Back in the day there wasn’t a cigarette we wouldn’t smoke or a chicken skin we didn’t wrench from its bone. We put the television on blast because hearing Archie Bunker yell at Edith was better than the thumping from above and below. Heads got smacked into walls, babies were crying in every direction, and there go Luz smashing Bacardi bottles on the floor as her man made a run for the door. I mean, wouldn’t you want earmuffs? One time, the boys were roof jumping, trying to impress the girls with the slim hips. Girls who maybe got the bleed but compensated by slashing red on their lips. On the block, red lipstick meant you were a woman but one borough over it just meant you were Puerto Rican. Everyone was trying to be grown, even when they knew that right now–the gum they smacked and the loosies they smoked–was as good as it’ll ever get. Anyway.

So the boys were posturing, practicing their look at me when a girl jumped out of a window. Marlon was on the roof while Ricky was in midair and one of the girls screamed and Ricky lost his concentration, tumbled down, and wasn’t he lucky that the girl who jumped broke his fall. They covered the girl with a sheet because who knew when the ambulance would come. On the way to Maimonides, Ricky kept screaming in the back of the Chevelle that he couldn’t feel his legs. Are they there, man? Are they fucking there? Because I can’t feel them. Back on the stoop, mothers wrapped their daughter’s hair while they took sips from bottles in brown paper bags, talking about Marlon’s birthday at Sizzler. All the garlic bread you can eat. When word got back that Ricky was paralyzed from the waist down, the mothers held their grand pieta complete with head-shaking and teeth-sucking, and thank god he ain’t mine. One said: that’s one less casserole we have to make. That’s cold, said another. Nobody talked about the body gone blue in the alleyway because that’s how it was back then–trash got picked up faster than the bodies.

That was the summer they put bars on the windows and deadbolted roof doors. Nobody asked why a ten-year-old girl jumped out of a window but everyone understood why Ricky wheeled himself out to the street. Smack in front of an oncoming bus.

*

A woman falls asleep and wakes next to a man who’s killed more than a hundred women. Andy is a neurosurgeon who owns a tabby cat called Edith. For a time, Andy was a therapist who worked in a clinic that took patients on a sliding scale, when he met the woman who would become his wife. She walked into his office with a box of razor blades she ordered off the internet. I need you to take this, she said, handing Andy the box of blades. I need some distance from this. She wasn’t suicidal, he determined, she was more like one of those cry-for-help types, yet he found her gesticulations curious and her non-sequiturs endearing, albeit mildly tourretic. I have so much pain and I don’t know where to put it, she said. Do I put it in a box? If so, how big of a box? What are its dimensions? Do I take this box filled with my wants and my sadness to the beach? Should I ease it into the water and wait for the space between the box floating and the box being subsumed by the water? Do I mourn the box’s passing, the inevitable swallowing? To which Andy responded, fuck the box. Lay down your pain. Right here. The woman grew quiet and finally she said, do I get visitation rights? Can I come back for my pain once in a while?

Andy laughed, shook his head and said, you’re not a circus and this isn’t the zoo. Later that night, he drafted a paper on the structure and function of a psychopath’s brain. He wrote about the reduced structural integrity in the white matter fibers connecting the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. How the two disparate parts of the brain–the former controlling empathy and impulse control and the latter controlling fear–failed to communicate. It’s like two men on the range drawing their guns at dawn, only, in this case, no man is left standing. Sometimes, he thought about his parent’s boat, engulfed in flames, sailing in the distant horizon. Sometimes he remembered a book of matches of his hand, but mostly he thought about the fact that over the years he’s refined. He’s better at his work.

But he never tells his wife this because hers is possibly the one heart he can’t bear to break. His wife is clean, unlike the others. The others are gruesome, sullied, and deserving of the bleach that paled them down to bone.

There was a moment, though, when he thought about closing his hands around her neck. He even went as so far as to follow her home from one of their sessions. Andy watched her pause in front of her door. He watched her close her eyes and part her mouth and he could see that she attempted a scream but no sound came out. And as if nothing had happened, she then opened her eyes, slipped her key into the door, and made her way in. Andy witnessed her hurt, the whole of it, and realized his therapy failed to make a difference. He wondered, briefly, if her pain exceeded his. For weeks, he followed her home and saw her repeat the ritual. Home wasn’t safe, it wasn’t a refuge, rather it was a temporary container for her hurt. Once, he approached her door and leaned against it, hoping to hear her breathing from the other side.

Nights, he studied his brain scans and saw a small glimmer of a connection between polar states. It occurred only when he thought of her.

On their honeymoon, she tossed and turned at night. Her body was volcanic. Andy held her when she woke up screaming. She told him the story of a distant cousin jumping out of a window, her body left covered by a sheet for three days until the men came and took her away. In a span of a newscast from her home in Long Island, she learned that a part of her family died. Her aunt of a heroin overdose, her cousin who couldn’t bear child services and chose to jump instead. She remembered her mother snatching the remote out of her hand and changing the channel to All in the Family. Her mother said, that’s not our family. That’s not our kind. Years later, she would discover that her mother was her aunt, a woman who couldn’t bear children and relieved her sister of her burden instead. The woman on the television screen, the aunt who died of a heroin overdose and the mother she barely knew, was, in fact, her kind.

Andy asked why she never brought this up. Somber, his wife said, we fell in love and I had to find a new therapist. Remember?

Come morning, they learned that a woman in their hotel had been strangled in her room. The wife was scared, drew Andy closer. Should we leave? Andy shook his head, smoothed her hair like did his Edith and kissed the red lipstick off her mouth when he said, I’d never hurt you. I’d never let anyone hurt you.

*

 

Hers was the kind of grave you couldn’t wait to dance on. It’s callous to say that, I know, I know, respect the dead, but we so rarely get the opportunity to say what we really think. What would you say if your mother’s been dead for a decade and bill collectors are still calling you in hopes of reclaiming her debts? Why should I be responsible for her ransacking the Fingerhut catalog? No one told her to buy seven of those QVC toasters. When it comes to my mother, I don’t have Hallmark feelings. When it comes to my mother, I don’t feel anything at all.

Did you see that TV special about the rich doctor on death row? That man killed 200 women and he only got caught when his wife discovered his lockup with four of the bodies. You didn’t see it? The special about Doctor Death? This is why I hate hospitals.

*

Kitty Katherine Knox once said dead people are always so messy. Look at them, blood splashing around. They don’t even look like people anymore. Before the good doctor, Andy Knox was executed by lethal injection in the State of California, he looked at the faces belonging to the families of the victims and said, I like you. I’m going to come back for you and all you love. Mark my words.  The morning of the execution his wife’s hand was shaking as she applied red lipstick.

 

*

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp. You could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

Image Credit: Mike Wilson

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odds & ends

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“Can’t you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful?” ― Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

I haven’t loved a book so hard since Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. I never thought a relentlessly dark tale of a prodigy pianist, who so desperately wants to end her life, could be funny. It’s easier to write binary and it’s downright difficult to create balance, and Toews manages to achieve this on a level that is awe-inspiring. The novel centers around sisters, one of whom is a gifted, yet tortured, musician (think: the poet in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Percival in The Waves), and the other the prodigal fuck-up, and how their private, unbinding love is challenged by suicide. In one scene you’re reading about Elf and her latest attempt to take her own life by slashing her wrists and downing bleach, and then you’re somehow laughing at the dark comedy that is this large, disruptive family plagued by a history of depression. As a writer, I often read books on two levels–one for pure enjoyment, entertainment or education and another as a devoted student. I deconstruct structure; I diagram character and tone. I’ll ask, how does he/she achieve what I’m trying to do, and how could I learn from them? While I’m tethered to the darker side of things, I’m feeling the need, especially now, to imbue my work with needed light.

If you don’t mind a book that’s a little heavy (balanced by light), I can’t recommend Toews’s novel enough. Buy it. Now.

I love science fiction. My favorite show of all time is The Twilight Zone, and I think Rod Serling a genius for the stories he imagined and brought to the small screen–most of which were provocative in the late 1950s conservative culture. I loved Stranger Things for the imaginative plot, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s, and after I visited Guillermo Del Toro’s very magical and horrifying LACMA exhibit, I found The Strain and I’m addicted. The story is less sci-fi than apocalyptical and biblical — the world we know plagued by a virus, which we soon learn to be a sophisticated strain of vampirism. This isn’t your staid fangs and capes, rather, Del Toro’s modern day monsters are painstakingly conceived from an evolutionary and biological perspective. And while the story is smart and forward (the catastrophic battle between humans and monsters), the characters grapple with real issues of love and loss.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve become enamored by artists who straddle and redefine form. The Leftovers isn’t just a cable drama about a day when millions of people suddenly disappeared–it’s drama, sci-fi, poetry, all meditating on all the ways in which we define and experience loss. This is why I admire writers like Maggie Nelson, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet and others of their ilk who refused to be confined in a box. A few weeks ago, I shared my new novel’s jacket copy with someone whom I was potentially interested in hiring as a freelance publicist but was disappointed when this person wrote back, oh, this is genre fiction. Let me pause and I say that this argument isn’t about whether I like or don’t like genre fiction (I do, and think genre fiction is hard to pull off, thus warranting so much respect–I wish I had the commitment to pacing and patience that a brilliant mystery novel requires), it’s about having myopic vision. I set out to toy with form–I wanted to write a story rooted in literary fiction (my comfort zone) but have elements of psychological thriller and suspense. I look to Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder as a perfect example of collapsing form. If you read her book jacket, you would say, oh, this is just true crime. While there’s nothing wrong with true crime (Ann Rule’s memoir of her working with Ted Bundy is one of my all-time favorites), that reductionist thinking would’ve ignored what Nelson set out achieve. Her slim book is parts true crime, memoir, poetry, and a private letter between her and her aunt, who died in the hands of a serial killer.

I get that we want to give everything an elevator, fit everything into a neat and tidy box because it’s quick, efficient and easy. However, I admire artists who break tradition, who say, this book, show, or song need not be only this. It could be this and that.

A brief aside: have you noticed that shows have literally gone dark? I already wear glasses. Please don’t make me reach for the flashlight.

In the vein of nodding to people who inspire you, I loved this take on success being defined as how you elevate others. Years ago, I read The Art of War, and now I find it a pile of shit. I’m not interested in Darwinian workplace warfare, rather, I know I win by how I treat others and how I help them rock out in whatever they’re doing. Another way in which you can view success is by how you redefine size. We naturally think that bigger and more is better, a sign of achievement. I have X amount of followers, thus I’m an “influencer”. My home is Y square footage, so that means I’ve “made it”. I don’t subscribe to a McMansion view of life, rather, I’m in step with Mike Birbiglia’s call to play small.

And if you’re not reading Bianca Bass’s wonderful blog, you’re not living your best life. She writes about success and creative work from the millennial perspective–namely, you don’t have to hustle 24/7, rest is a virtue, and her musings call for more meaningful connection beyond fan counts. I’ve grown really tired of being sold to ALL. THE. TIME., so it’s a respite to discover someone’s blog and their writing and not feel trapped by an affiliate link. There are people who still tell stories just to tell them.

Finally, one of the things I’ve learned this year is the need to nurture relationships and be patient. I admired this mother’s lament on how the challenges in her life prevent her from being the kind of friend she knows she can be. I’ve been there (with an unhealthy relationship to my work replacing children), and if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s this: Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Lean on your friends and help when you can.

 

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I am a country of wants

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1. 

When I am nine (or maybe ten), a teacher in my school is reprimanded for showing Nazi camp films. If you ask me now, I can’t recall if she showed them to the entire class or only to me, but I can still see a pyre of bodies, skin barely draped over skeleton, the black and white of a television screen creating a filter, a sort of dissonance between me and the horrors flashed across the screen. At the time I didn’t understand what I was seeing — the unimaginable, conceived by a man who sought to extinguish an entire race of people. But in that moment I’m a child bearing witness to bodies that resemble the kind I’ve seen overdosed in parks and alongside dumpster bins in the backs of supermarkets. You compare that which you see to that which you know because in childhood there exists no context — the bodies in the film seem like the bodies on the street, only there are more of them. So much more. Years later I’ll come to understand that atrocity isn’t a game of rock-paper-scissors.

My teacher clasps a silver bracelet adorned with seashells around my wrist, and although I now consider her behavior unsettling, back then it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to be loved. I tell this story to one of my friends who has an infant daughter, and the way she arranges her face in response gives me pause. She can’t imagine her daughter being exposed to a body writhing and releasing under the elevated subway near the park. She can’t fathom having to explain the brutal and systematic annihilation of a people to a small child. My friend is less disturbed by my teacher’s behavior than my reaction to it. I shrug. When you witness death as often as I have, you become immune to its horror. Death’s like a house, you tell her, where all the lights flicker and flare out.

In high school, I learn that the teacher died of a heart attack, and she died alone.

2.

My high school principal orders me to see a therapist, weekly — a deal we come to after I get into some minor (okay, not so minor) trouble — and I think, I must be crazy now. Nobody I know is in therapy and if they are they wouldn’t dare talk about it. At the intake session, my mother does most of the talking about how she’s ashamed of having to be here, how this session inconveniences her, and with what money is she supposed to pay this therapist? And by the way, she doesn’t believe in therapy because people who can’t solve their problems are weak. Gus sits mute, shielding his eyes, while I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat. I’ve grown used to these rants but rarely do they play out publicly, and here we are, my mother paying $50 for an hour where she talks about herself and me wondering when the session will end. My mother storms out and I know she’s sitting in the car, smoking a cigarette down to the filter and then she’ll smoke another until she’s gone through the pack. In a small voice, the therapist asks me how I feel. How do I feel? Angry, I say. I’m angry. She asks me why, and I think, not why, who. I’m so angry with her. I gesture to the door as if it’s the woman in the car.

A few months later, I graduate high school and my deal with the principal is over. My therapist is concerned and wants me to stay on for the summer, possibly through the fall. I laugh at the possibility of therapy being something I’m not forced into. Besides, I’m going to college in the Bronx, practically a whole other country away from my mother. Trains and subway lines lay between us. I’m practically cured, I say. More importantly, I’m free.

Part of me wonders what would have happened if I’d stayed on. Who imagines the years stretching ahead of them, a childhood blanket unfurling under their feet leading the way back to a dark country that’s familiar (this reminds me of…) yet unnavigable? Instead, you think about being infinite. All you see is possibility and your desire to be smothered by it.

3.

You go to $5 drink-ups. You pound fifty-cent drafts. Zima is a big deal because it’s in a bottle and when you’re flush you ask for it infused with grenadine. Wine is a bottle of Boone’s Country you carry back from the bodega on Fordham Road — one that doesn’t card, one that doesn’t care to as long as you pay cash — and drink until the room goes black. You wiggle into too-tight jeans and leave the dorm during the winter wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt, but you’re warm from the pre-game, from the bottle of Absolut mixed with the Minute Maid you stole from the cafeteria. All your stories start with: that time when I was drunk…and even after you graduate you still tell those stories while your friends have moved away and tell new ones.

Every room in the dorm has a whiteboard the size of a notebook, a place where we’d leave notes for friends because there are no cell phones and we type our papers on Word processors. One night, my best friend at the time gets into a drunken argument with her boyfriend and leaves me stranded in Manhattan. I’m not sure how I get home but I remember my roommate shaking me awake in the morning, saying, holy shit, what did you write on her door? I cocoon myself with my comforter and see what I scrawled two doors down. A single line repeated in timid script: How could you leave me?

I attempt therapy again during my junior year in college. I wear the floral babydoll dresses everyone wears, layered over a tight white shirt. Possibly paired with a choker, but this isn’t 90210, this is me sitting in an old man’s office where he tells me about my drinking problem. I’m furious. I just met you, I say, and storm out because if I time it just right…if I change my clothes and pick up a slice in the caf, I could make it to $1 well drinks. I could feel the warmth of the first four drinks swathing me like soft blankets.

I never stop to think that if you replace my drink with a cigarette, I would be my mother shaking her knee in the car, thinking, you don’t know me. You don’t know me at all.

4.

My friend picks me up at a Metro North station Connecticut in her beat-up Saab. The road closes to clean and quiet as we make our way into a nearby town, and this is the kind of place where you don’t have cell reception. A genteel town cloaked in fireflies and deciduous trees, and I joke about getting murdered in the house in which I’m staying and the fact that it would take months before anyone would find me. My friend shakes her head and says, matter-of-factly, no, the maid would probably find you.

It’s summer and I’m spending the weekdays holed up in the guesthouse of what would be considered a compound. We drive over a wooden bridge and a maid materializes explaining that the sensors alerted her of our arrival. Before us is a mansion, and its presence frightens me more than any horror movie. We make our way to the guesthouse and my friend asks me about the woman who has generously lent me use of her summer home so I could finish my first book. You didn’t tell me she was old money rich, she says, to which I respond, how was I supposed to know? Everyone in New York carries a Prada bag.

The guesthouse is spare, outfitted in leather couches and chairs and the decor is nautical, masculine. The rooms smell of oak and the upstairs bathroom is the size of my first apartment. I run up and down the stairs a few times for the feel of it, because I’ve never lived in a home divided by two floors. The guesthouse is next to a pool, pool house and tennis court, and I spend most of my days reading by still water and nights watching Godard films. There’s no cable or internet, only an ocean of black night and quiet, and even though I’m in awe of a life that is moneyed, cultured and educated (I’ve never heard of Godard until that summer), the home feels cold, alienating and severe.

My friend, whose family owns the home, visits me for a weekend and she’s writing her own book about growing up wealthy and being shipped off to a conversion cult camp for the affluent — military school meets EST cult, but the way she describes it is like the Manson Family minus the murders. After dinner, she invites me into what I’ve called “The Big House”. I refuse. How do I explain that the guesthouse exceeds my limits, that the mansion would be too much? She shrugs and we turn in for the night.

Come morning, there is only what can be described as a typhoon. My friend’s mother has arrived along with her case of wine for the weekend. She drinks Sancerre, and I meet her in the kitchen of The Big House, watching her as she goes about her day holding an always-full glass. It’s not even eight in the morning, and my friend will tell me later that this is how she always remembers her mother — elegant, holding a glass. I feel strange in the house, as if at any moment I would be found out for some unspeakable crime I’d committed or electrocuted for touching the finery. I tell my friend I’m on a heater with this book and I’ll be in the guesthouse working through the weekend. My friend nods and I notice within a half hour her mother slurs her words.

When they leave on Sunday, I come out from my hiding place. I can finally breathe.

5.

I don’t know why I’m talking about this, I tell my psychiatrist this week. I tell him about a sticker collection I kept when I was small. I’d fill books with scratch & sniff, Lisa Frank and Mrs. Grossman, and they were a bright, glaring mess. It was the book made by a child who doesn’t understand order but desires only that which is beautiful. Then I tell him about the trips my mother would take with and without me to create books of her own. The arrangement of her pages was painstakingly precise, filled with negative space while mine was a crowded house, beer spilling onto the floor. Hers was always bigger, more, and soon I stopped collecting altogether and moved on to lanyard and friendship bracelets, a hobby she took up too.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I repeat.

I come home the summer before my sophomore year in college and I go through my things to see what can be kept and discarded. My friend comes by because we have plans for wine coolers at Jones Beach, and she sees the sticker books — mother’s and mine — spread out on the floor. While paging through the books, confusion washes her face.

Later, in the car, my friend starts to speak and reconsiders. That was weird, she says. Really weird.

We don’t talk about it again.

I don’t know why I told you all of this, I say to my psychiatrist before our time is up.

6.

My first image of a writer is Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A drunk burdened by history. I see the film in a theater when I am five and my first impression is: there’s so much red.

7.

Are you worried about being vulnerable, about how hard it will be to let someone in, my psychiatrist asks. Is this a hypothetical or real life? Are we talking about friendships or lovers? He says, real life. Both, either or. I oscillate between I think about it all the time and I try not to think about it at all.

8.

In 2013, I travel to Biarritz in the off-season and it rains most days and is cold on others. I spend most of my time staring at the barnacles that blanket all the rocks on the beach. A lone surfer comes in with the tide and come nightfall I run back to the small inn on the beach and I write a story that, in two year’s time would turn into a novel, about a woman who moves to California after her mother dies of cancer. True, the main character is Ted Bundy with a whisk, and sure, there’s a serial killer that may or not may the main character (or it could her 3o-year-old step-brother who talks to his imaginary friend, Lionel, as in Lionel Barrymore, the actor and also the name of a lighter their mother carried with her until her death), but it’s about a journey out west. The book is about familial loss.

9.

Last year your mother dies of cancer and it’s complicated. Her daughter makes it her mission to remind you of your duty because you are rotten, mythically evil. You’re quiet through all of this because this girl, this stranger, is your mother’s daughter, and she is still, for all intents and purposes, a child. She only knows the world her mother created for her, as you once knew the one she fictioned for you. All you wanted to do is say goodbye on your own terms, but no one allows you your grief — they only remind you of your duty, of everything you always and continuously have to give. Remember, your role in your mother’s death is not about grieving. It’s not about closure or quiet or last words exchanged between two complicated women, your role in all of this is to take care of a stranger, the do-over child, who’s the same age as you were when you left home. And you look at the list of people who harass you on her behalf, and you think she has multitudes. She has a version of your mother you would never know.

Why is it always your job to care for broken people? Can no one dress their own wounds? Must you always hold the bandages? Always you were reaching. Always you woke in the night and learned how to change the bandages in the places that were hard to reach. When, you think, will there be peace from all those who want you to tender, to save? When, you wonder, will someone grip your shoulder and say, don’t worry. I got this for you.

A month after she dies, you decide to move to California.

10.

I’ve spent my entire life fearing all the things that could possibly kill me. I panic on planes. I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs because that’s like flashing a Vacancy sign to the afterlife. Sometimes I bolt up from where I’m sitting and think: I’m going to die. I will no longer be here. Over the years, I’ve created a set of breathing exercises in preparation for the kind of terror that blows in like a hurricane, devastating everything in its wake. I’ve spent my life being aware of time, and here I am, a warm day in February, wanting nothing more than permanent sleep. My college best friend calls me from work, terrified over something I posted online and subsequently deleted. I bite my lip so hard it bleeds when I tell her I’m fine, just fine, and she sees right through me and begs me to get help. At first I don’t do it for me, I do it because the pain I would cause the people I love is entirely too much to bear.

I see my psychiatrist that week and tell him about wants. A room filled withso much red.

11.

Five months later, you watch a movie where the main character says, I want to be the girl playing the tambourine.

12.

I read a study that reveals that sociopaths have the capacity to feel empathy, they just choose not to. The author writes: “We believe that empathy is achoice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”

I show this to my psychiatrist. I shake my phone at him. She had a fucking choice, I say.

13.

Are you afraid of letting someone all the way in?

I think about the teacher, the films, the shells, The Shining, the barnacles on the rocks, all that black, white and red, and I say that I don’t want to die, or die alone, or bear the weight of my history of darkness. No, I say. I want someone to come join me here. To crawl all the way in.

I am a country of wants. I want new stories.

the gathering kind

new fiction: dark matter

photo-1450758296713-ae08c26870af

Photo Credit: Unsplash

 

People ask me how I am and say, oh, you know. Dying slowly. I wake and fall asleep to this tedium and the only thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I no longer need to adjust my eyes to the dark because the night is persistent. I am here and I am dead, yet I’m walking. Look at me—a stoplight, a lamppost, an old chair in dire need of upholstery. Turn me on and off like that lamp on the table, and watch as the bulb flickers and fades until one day it flares out.

The night he left, he said cruel things, horrible things you can’t imagine, and he followed me into the shower, photographing me. He took pictures of me crying through the frosted glass, even as I begged him not to. He said you look alive when you’re in pain. When I slept he poured a jar of ants onto my bed and he filmed me when I woke, screaming. He sat on top of me and fanned the camera from left to right. Look at you, Ava. You’re practically ultraviolet. I love watching them crawl all over your face, scurrying in and out of your hair. It was only when I was suffering did I come into color. I was all gray and black light, but that night, with the ants covering me, I was suddenly vermillion, emerald, and actinic blue.

Sometimes I hate myself for missing him. Don’t say his name—don’t even think it. Other times I allow myself to remember how his jaw moved like tectonic plates when he chewed, and his sour breath in my hair. [It starts with a J. Full stutter out—James.] Now all I feel are the crackle of bones beneath my skin. When I close my mouth I taste ashes. My body is a grave.

A year after he left, a woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and my building caught fire. I woke to the alarm blaring and when I reached for the broom to dismantle the thing [the hurt seized you], I smelled smoke. I felt heat rising up all around me, and light beside me. I grabbed my wallet, coat, and keys and made a run for it. Outside my feet curled in the snow. Socks. I’d forgotten them. A week later, a detective stood in the middle of my friend Millie’s apartment, picking up and putting down things as if claiming ownership of them. I was smoking a Newport and pulling at the edges of a skirt that no longer fit. The detective pointed to the smoke and said it was your bed, your cigarette. Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I shook my head. Shrugged. I knew there was a fire, I just didn’t know whom it belonged to. Besides, I was half-awake, drunk [black-out drunk, if you’re being honest], and thought maybe the super cranked up the heat for once. It felt nice to come home to a room where warmth cradled you.

No one pressed charges because the building owner took the insurance money and bought a house in the Keys [lady, you did me a favor; wolf-whistles all down the street], and the detectives had all been pulled in to work on a case of a serial killer who harvested his victims’ organs and left John Donne poems in place of what he had removed. Poor Donne. He never had a chance with that Cockney accent, and with Keats and Shelley fluffing their wigs and feasting on spiced lamb. Writing rich boy poems about how small they were. It reminded me of all my friends who would tell me about their sadness. They would talk about finding themselves lost in a place where cartographers failed to map, and I had to laugh because what they felt was a stopover in small town—a trembling pause in their overly illuminated life—while the dark spaces were my point of origin. They had their dark time while swathed by their money, husbands and families in waiting while I had nothing. So while I don’t understand the serial killer’s nocturnal habits, I understand the poet’s desperation. I understand a man who had to wade his way through an ocean with only a pen while others had ships, first mates, and clear skies.

A week later I flew to Los Angeles.

 

*

 

Will you always be your singular hurt? [Interruption—I am small, like sonnets and the architecture smothers.] Will there exist a time when you are no longer the weight you carry? Tell me, how is it that you’re able to excise so coldly? Was it because the wings you tore off flies made you sad? Observe their paraplegic limbs miming flight with a kind of disquiet—the depths of which only you know. [In contrast, my grief is epic poetry.] Or was it the way you arranged your hair—a fugue of roller-set curls covering a half-mask, your sadness filling the gaps. When it’s calm and the sun blows out, you can make a run for it. But before you go, ask yourself: why did he turn away from you? Was it because you shone too bright? Your eyes take on the quality of black matter and you press them shut in hopes that you can stop the flood, the inevitable tears. Like carp, you surface briefly for air only to plunge into the deep again. You’re wearing that lipstick again [I’ve got a taste for the manufacture and packaging of bruises]: a red slash on your lips against a landscape of bone-white and blue. You are forever covered in wounds.

 

*

 

You are worthless. You’re nothing, but how is that you still take up so much space? Don’t speak to me that way. In what way am I speaking? The way you always speak to me. I don’t want to do this now; my face hurts. How is it that I’m the only one who can feel my bones? Can you please not make me talk right now? I’d prefer to not talk. I’d prefer to pinch the skin on my body until the blood collects until it appears as if I’m bleeding beneath the surface because I am. Bleeding. These are the times when I hate you, immeasurably. Immeasurably? [Raucous laughter, rising to a cackle] Just stop. You’ve never been good at math and you’ve never liked me, James. Sometimes you make me feel like I don’t exist.

You don’t exist, Ava. Haven’t you been listening? I close my eyes and think about my mother—my first country, the only place I inhabited completely. I was a sliver of her continent, part of her main.

Back then, James and I lived in a basement apartment. We couldn’t tell when the sun rose or set. I liked that—the confusion. Sometimes he brought girls home and I’d have to sit and watch as he combed their hair, cut it, and shoved bits of it into my mouth. Swallow, pretty girl, he told me. Get every last bite. After he said, next time, can you wear that dress with the lace sleeves? I hate that dress, it makes me look like a doily. Ava, do you realize how fatuous you sound? A fucking doily? You used to be fun. You used to amuse me and now you’re a walking refugee camp. Can’t you do this one simple thing for me, after everything, everything, I’ve done for you? His voice was an avalanche I was desperate to tumble under. Ava, what’s the problem? If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll get one of those frail girls. Maybe an anorexic—they always have thinning hair and rings around their eyes.

Did you think I was pretty while I was choking on that girl’s hair when you didn’t even stop to get me a glass of water? I remember you. You wrote me a letter on the back of a Chinese take-out menu, and it was about how you spent months watching me. How you followed me to the ocean once. Watched me swim against the waves that were blue, green, salty and cool. You wrote about the pelicans that surrounded me as I sprawled out on the shoreline, my body a ticker tape of hurt desperate to be carried out by the wind and the undertow. And, all this time, I fell in love with a man who wrote me a letter, who delivered evidence of his devotion, and I never stopped to consider its contents. I never found it strange that a stranger was watching me because maybe I was happy just to have been watched. Now I watch what you do to younger versions of me. Take me back to that letter, James. Tell me one nice thing about me. James sighed, and with a scissor, he cut the ends off my hair. Your name is easy to spell, was all he could fathom after three years of being the light that blared over my bed.

What is it that you think you’ve done for me? I want to ask, but I don’t.

 

*

 

When I was ten, my mother took me for lunch in a small luncheonette on Long Island—far from the Jackson Heights apartment in which we lived. The luncheonette stood at the end of a long line of empty stores that flashed For Lease or Going Out of Business signs. We only had to walk a few feet from the train station to view the shack with its peeling green paint and faded Pepsi signs. A placard reminiscent of the 1950s read: Hot coffee and a buttered bagel for $.50! This was the sort of place where everything arrived frozen and left torched. I kept asking why this place, why here, and my mother shook her head and cried out: you’re killing me. Ava. Murder in the first.

Inside, a man sat in a booth tearing apart a blueberry muffin. What had the muffin done to deserve such aggression? I stood behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her small waist as she streaked across the room to the table where he sat. On a giant plate lie the remains of his breakfast—a massacre of berries and cake. The man didn’t eat his food, it was more like he attacked it and took pleasure in surveying the destruction. When I edged into the booth across from him, he pushed his plate toward me and said, have some. I didn’t want a muffin; I wanted a cheeseburger! I’m allergic, I said, to which he responded, the whole or parts of it? The man laughed and proceeded to flick blueberries at my mother who laughed while shielding her face and said, my daughter has a casual relationship with the truth. I’m allergic to all of it, I said.

This is Martin, my mother said by way of introduction. I know that voice, it was the same one she used when she introduced my father to people we didn’t know. It was the voice of intimacy, of possession; this is someone you need to know. This was the voice that would alter the days following this one. What kind of name is Martin? I said. The kind of name you’ll be hearing a lot more of, he replied, adjusting his Marlboro man cap to further obscure his gray eyes. Martin owned a fleet of trucks that ran food deliveries all over Long Island, which I imagined was a leap from my father who owned a grocery store that sold lottery tickets and malt liquor on Elmhurst Blvd. When we were flush, which was rare considering everyone in the neighborhood bought on credit, my father would take us to Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Indian restaurants in the East Village, where I’d stare at the carousel of blinking lights until I passed out. Money didn’t mean luncheonettes in beat-up villages. Money didn’t mean caps that shielded a man’s eyes.

That day I ordered French fries and snapped each one in half and imagined Martin’s bones. I held up a fry and said, with eyes black and cold like certain seas, look how easily you break.

On the ride home, my mother told me she was giving me the choice she never had. I could either come live with her and Martin or remain in Queens with my father because she was done with her primary life. It was as if she’d found Jesus in Martin and was desperate to be reborn. I pictured Martin twitching; I imagined him choking on a mountain of ruined muffins. I remember the way he kissed my mother and how he left her face slick like oil spills. I was ten but I remember feeling lethal. I remember feeling that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be alone with Martin. Safe for him, that is.

That day in the luncheonette I never had my cheeseburger, but I bought one the day my mother lugged two suitcases down five flights of stairs to a taxi that waited outside. I went to McDonald’s and ordered the two cheeseburger meal, and I unwrapped the burgers slowly, delicately, and after I was done, after I’d eaten the meat, drank the cola and devoured the salty fries, I tore off bits of paper and cardboard and tossed them out the window like confetti. When my mother left, my father cried every night in his room for six months straight. I’d hear the guttural wails, his anguish, and whenever I soft-knuckled the door and said, pop are you okay, pop what can I do, he swallowed his cries and said he was fine, just fine, and could I be a good girl and get him a beer out of the fridge? I tucked him into his bed when I was fourteen and made his dinner and combed his hair when I was nineteen, and still he never recovered. The problem with me is that I think people are good, he once said. No one is good, pop. When will you learn this? My father never resumed his former shape, and sometimes I’d ride the subway out to Brighton Beach because only the waves rivaled my anger.

My mother sent postcards from a town called Elmont. Why did she send postcards? Did she consider her abandonment a vacation for which she was long overdue? Whenever I thought my wounds were closing up, she’d find a way to jab her fingers back in. Over the years, I sent her newspaper clippings of murdered women—photographs of necks bruised, eyes gaped wide, and the requisite high school portraits that evoked the emotional refrain of: observe her purity and innocence—until there came a day when the postcards stopped coming. The morning of my high school graduation I mailed her my last clipping. It was the story of a young girl who hung herself from a tree. I remember the lamentation, the pieta practiced by the evening news and mourners. The cries of: she had so much to live for; she left us too soon. They spoke of the child’s suicide as a theft, and everyone—the Home Depot location from which she purchased the rope to her parents for giving her an allowance to purchase said rope—was accountable. I wept sad clown tears.

Underneath the girl’s class photo, I scrawled: After you left me. A decade later, long after I had moved out of my childhood home, my father handed me an envelope and inside were five words that had been written by my mother: I gave you a choice.

 

*

 

My friend Millie phones to warn me that the cannibalistic serial killer has expanded his footprint. Apparently, New York is too cold and dark in the winter, and he’s moved on to sunshine and bones bleached white from the sun. Already he’s gouging hearts and dropping sonnets along the 405. I tell Millie that I’ll take my chances. And besides, odds are James will get to me first. He phones to tell me he’s in L.A. for a thing and would I hook up with him after? James says he wants to make sure I haven’t brought my fire-starter proclivities out west. Would it be rude if he rolls up to my apartment with a fire extinguisher and a condom? I tell him I’m busy, and he says that I’ll come around in a few hours because Ava always comes around. Before I hang up I wonder aloud if he’s the man who’s going around putting innocent women on the menu, and he laughs and says he’s strictly a hair man. Have you kept your hair long, Ava? James asks. His voice is as smooth as mirrors. I can’t see you tonight, James. Even the slightest contact with you will break bones. [Start brewing your detachment; shrink down to fairy size.] You can’t call me anymore.

You’re the saddest little bird, he says. Leave your door unlocked—I’ll come by late.

He’s got cards missing from the deck is all I’m saying, said Millie when she first met James. Your man only just met me and already he’s running his fingers through my hair, and you know how I feel about people touching me, especially my hair. Back then I brushed her off, told her James didn’t know the rules, but she wasn’t buying it. Millie drew an imaginary circle around her body and said, this is my space and you don’t get an all-access pass unless you’re on the guest list. And there he was acting all VIP, practically drop-kicking the bouncers at the door. I told Millie she was being dramatic and she countered with I’m being honest. That man doesn’t know his limits—he doesn’t understand that there are places to which he’s not permitted to go. I don’t know, Ava. Haven’t you grown tired of loving the stampede?

By the way, I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it might upset you. Mission accomplished, I snapped, cutting her off in mid-sentence. No, it’s not about James. It’s about your mother. I saw her the other day holding a little girl’s hand, and the girl looked just like you.

This isn’t news, Millie. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. Later that night in James’s bed I said, tell me you love me. And he turned to me with eyes shuttering and black and said, tell me you love me. He pulled my hair and said, look at you shivering, my little haiku.

A month later I ran into the man who raped me. I don’t know if rape is the right word because his shouting yes was louder than my no, so maybe he never heard my refusal. After, he brought me a glass of cold water and rubbed the sides of my feet. On that day, I saw him I was with James and the man who raped me was bouncing an infant on his knee. The little girl wore a pink puffer jacket and white socks with lace sewn around the ankles, and James smirked when the man, seated across from us, asked of his daughter: so who’s my little girl? The child reached for the man with outstretched arms and all she could say was Daddy. There should be a law against this kind of male blubbering, James said. I opened a book, but didn’t read it, and when the man who raped me reached his spot, he carried his girl gently in his arms and I leaned my head on James’s shoulder and said, that man raped me. James nodded and said he wasn’t surprised.

Before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped cold in front of a photograph that flashed across my television screen. It was the man who raped me and his neck had been cut from ear to ear, and the only reason he was found so quickly was because his daughter was screaming in the back seat. When the police arrived at the scene, they took a photograph of the child and samples for forensics because someone had scrawled, using her father’s blood, the letters N and O on her cheeks. The killer slipped a CD into the car stereo—Nirvana’s Nevermind, which played on repeat until one of the officers on the scene pressed the Stop button.

 

*

 

Who’s the kid that answered the phone—a repeat of me?

I gave you a choice, Ava.

Is that what you gave me, you fucking animal?

I have to hang up now, Ava. I have to go.

Tell me, where does everyone go when they say they have to go?

I have to go, Ava.

Stop saying my name like that…

—Like what?

Like you’re trying hard to remember it.

I have to go.

So go, I said. You little world, that made me so cunningly.

 

*

 

In Los Angeles, there is no rain, only sun, and James slips into bed beside me and bites the back of my neck. I tell him I’m tired and he tells me he’s tired too, so we lay in a kind of half-sleep for hours until the darkness overcomes us and forces our eyes shut. When I wake, he’s gone, but he’s left a note, which reads: I loved you in my own way.

I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes before I turn off the water and sit on the floor with a towel specked with blood. I look at the towel. I look between my legs and I wonder whether this is my blood. Does this blood belong to me? Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I call James and tell him there’s blood on my towel. The line breeds static and James says, you and your convenient memory. You don’t know how much I miss you. Burn the towel in the tub and get some sleep. What happened to the guy who wrote me a love letter on a Chinese take-out menu? James’s pause was measured and pregnant, punctuated the blare of horns on the freeway. I never wrote you a letter, Ava. You wrote me. Don’t you remember?

I burn the towel. I get some sleep. I’m a good girl; I do as I’m told.

 

*

 

I think he’s in my head again, messing things up, I tell Millie over a telephone line. I tell her about the phone call, the bed, and the blood on the towel. After a familiar pregnant pause Millie says, that’s impossible. James wasn’t in L.A. last night. And how do you know this? Because he was with me, but before you freak out it’s not what you think. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking. Ava, listen to me. I’m hanging up the phone, Millie.

I leave James 26 voicemails. He calls back and in a small voice he says, Ava, you gotta stop calling me. I hurl my phone across the room and shout, who’s the haiku now? I’ll see you in time.

I text Millie: I am two fools, I know.

 


This is the latest installment in Ava’s voice, which has been really fun to write. This is a pure first draft, so I’ll likely be making a pile of edits. Check out “Women in Salt” if you’re pining for more. 

 

book buff

the pile is always bottomless

tbr pile

There will always be books to read. When I was younger there was a thrill in entering Waldenbooks. For hours, I’d get lost in the stacks or find a place in which to hide with my pile of books that I was already in the thick of reading. We didn’t have malls in Brooklyn–King’s Plaza–but nothing significant, and when my family moved to Long Island, malls awed me. They were gleaming and grand, and even though I couldn’t afford anything in the stores I’d still wander through them. They all had that new car smell. Sometimes I’d splurge on an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel, slathered in hot butter or I’d feast on a Johnny Rockets cheeseburger back when I believed Johnny Rockets made a good burger. This was before the world. This was before context and seemingly endless choices. This was when Waldenbooks had the best books.

Back then I didn’t know what a “literary canon” meant. I didn’t know that there were writers you had to read or know. I read what interested me. I read Dostoyevsky alongside Pat Conroy and Alice Eliott Dark. I picked up Ann Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me because the cover put me on pause. It was austere, bleached bone, and somber. I liked Flowers in the Attic and found Flowers for Algernon, and realized that maybe they weren’t so dissimilar. I read all of Ayn Rand until I realized that Ayn Rand was a bucket of crazy even if she knew how to tell a story. What I read was pretty much determined by my reaction to the first page of a book. If I didn’t like the first page or even the first sentence, why bother? I asked cashiers to recommend books based on ones I’d read and enjoyed. I read books mostly written by men because that’s what I read throughout high school and college. I was taught that men wrote the “big books”, the “great stories” while women wrote the quiet ones. It wasn’t until I was 24 and in the writing program at Columbia did I encounter bombastic, brilliant women. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf (and no, I’d never read her work until graduate school), Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and I could go on. Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).

Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).  Until then I didn’t know the disdain that “literary fiction” writers had for genre fiction, the tension between the books that sold well and were reviewed well. I didn’t put too much stock in book reviews because I frequently disagreed with them. I liked books people didn’t like and hated ones people revered. I read what pleased me and it would take me well over a decade to undo the snobbery I had taken for truth. Now I read whatever satisfies me in the present moment and know that a book’s value lies in the way that it gives a certain kind of pleasure to the reader or how it transforms them in some unimaginable way. I read mostly to see the world through someone else’s prism, and I write to make sense of the world in which I exist, a world that is often wonderful, frightening and confusing. I read and write to see what could be done with language, how it could be architecture or surgery.

I’ve read 52 books this year, most of them written by women, many of them poetry collections and children’s books. I love the latter because both genres require a velocity and precision that’s demonstrably absent from other genres. A child has a short attention span so the work of a children’s book lies in both the economy and simplicity of language balanced by story movement and images that transport the child into an imaginative place. People who think children’s books are easy to write are fucking bonkers. I wouldn’t dare because I’d complicate the story in some way or use an image that would send a toddler to psychotherapy. I tend to look at safe objects and wonder how I can make them unsafe or unsettling–if that doesn’t happen on the page for me, I’m not interested in the characters or story. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure, and we stare in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying, Rilke writes in the first of the ten Duino Elegies.

George Saunders says that a real writer makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s kind of a freak. “Uncomfortable moments are not without value…because they make you feel luminous”. And I agree with that. The stories that have remained with me have made me feel unsettled, uncomfortable or uneasy in some way. I cleave to difficult, broken people. I like writing and reading about them.

I’m not blog-famous, and that’s okay. I don’t have a literary community and haven’t found these communities to be particularly inclusive and supportive though I dare say they would say they are all the way to the grave. I find most best-of book lists to be ridiculous because best is merely a subjective reflection of one’s taste and cultural access (or lack thereof). So I think about next year, what I’ll read and write, and I have an urge to re-read the Classics because no one does tragedy and pillaging better than the Ancient Romans and Greeks. I want to read stories that wouldn’t easily slip into my purview (meaning, I have to do the work in finding works in translation, works from POC, those not aligning with a binary gender). I want to read more children’s books and poems because both give me great joy in moments of grave darkness.

In terms of writing, I want to create stories that straddle genres. I love the blurred lines between fiction and non-fiction and the fallibility of memory. I’ve become oddly curious about dark matter and neurology and not sure how that will factor in. I still like my broken, flawed women and will continue to champion dark stories and characters even when the world tells me that they won’t sell, no one will read them. Next year I’d like to collaborate with a visual artist in some way, get better at taking pictures, and allow for different, varied voices in my work. Moreso than I’ve been writing as of late.

Sometimes I think back to those days in the mall, on the floor of Waldenbooks. I think about how much I didn’t know, and even though much has filled the space between that girl then and that woman now, there’s still so much to learn. There’s always so much to know in the brief time we’re able to know it. So this is the work. Always be the student and never posture as a pure teacher.

 

book buff

the whole stretch ahead of you (deliberate randomness)

Death_to_stock_photography_bonus_floral_3

Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th

I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?

I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?

Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.

On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:

People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.

I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.

After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.

If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.

Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.

Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.

 


Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

book buff the gathering kind