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!

the flaw of love

driving in carsLast year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.

My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.

My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.

I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.

War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.

Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.

He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.

There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.

When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?

Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.

I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?

With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.

What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?

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.

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.

simple coconut cake

coconut cake

It’s been a while since I’ve made a cake.

Yesterday, I spoke with my agent about a new book I’ve been working on. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a suicidal teenager and travels across the country to witness the girl take her own life. But that wasn’t always the story. I gave my agent a collection of stories about women in various states of unraveling–women in cults, women who have been raped, and women who have the arcane ability to speak from the grave. I started the book last year when I first moved to California and I was surprised how quickly I finished a draft. I sent it to my agent and I could practically feel the trepidation in his response. Unbeknownst to me, I was rapidly unraveling and documenting that decent in a new book. I’d soon fall into a depression–a dark country to which I’m frightened to ever return–and my agent told me to take a break, think about the book and come back to him with something other.

It took nearly nine months for me to look at my work and cringe. What I’d been writing was relentlessly dark, I couldn’t bear to read it. I actually had to physically put the manuscript away and breathe. For years, it was easy for me to access that place, to sit in pain and discomfort, to know there would likely be an escape from it. How do you write about light? How do you write happy endings when darkness is the one thing you know. The only thing that’s never abandoned you.

Yesterday my agent wondered aloud about me as a writer before meds and after meds. Am I different, he wondered. Is it harder to write? I said meds gave me perspective, that not being on them made it dangerously easy to access the darker recesses of myself. But reading all of that now, I’m not sure I even want that imbued in my work. I told Matthew that I wanted to write a book that ended with hope. He laughed. Well, that’s a switch.

I’ve got a gut renovation ahead of me, but I’m excited to write my first book with a clearer head.

But back to the cake.

If you’ve been following me along on Instagram, you’ve seen that I moved apartments this week. I left the beach and the apartment that felt like the in-betweens, a place that held some of my most painful memories, and I’m in a home that finally feels like home. I’ve never lived in a space this big. I’ve never had a home office (I’m typing this in my new office!). Counter space was always precarious, something of which I had to artfully negotiate.

I have a new friend coming over tonight and I’m making her a 4-hour bolognese sauce. But this morning I woke and had the urge to bake a cake. I don’t know if it’s the desire for meditation because this week has been painful and stressful beyond measure. I won’t bother talking about the election on this space because I’m too angry to articulate how and what I feel. Baking worked. I pulled together this simple cake and it is INSANELY moist. I will say that since I don’t have a lot of sugar in my diet the frosting was A LOT. I had to scrape it all off to enjoy the cake. But if you love your sugar rush, this piece of heaven will not disappoint.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Molly on the Range
For the cake
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour (I used gluten-free)
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (I used almond as that’s what I had on hand)
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted but not hot

For the frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp full-fat coconut milk

For assembly
4 oz unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut
fresh berries, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
This cake is insanely simple. Pre-heat the oven to 350 and grease/line an 8-inch cake pan. Add the first 6 dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. In a medium bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry with the mix speed on medium. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Now on to the frosting. Clean out that stand mixer and beat the butter on medium until creamy (you’re using the paddle attachment, fyi). Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the sugar and beat until combined. Slowly, because you don’t want to get sugar all over your face. Beat in the salt, vanilla, and coconut milk. Frost the cake like a rock star and add that shredded coconut like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat a coconut.

I am a country of wants

photo-1472764033577-998db5bf8697

Credit

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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.

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old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.

It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?

Soon I mastered the acronyms:

AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal

Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.

When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.

This morning, I read a remarkable post about a woman who’s made hundreds of friends through social media. Ella Risbridger writes:

We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.

1-lon_HLCqSNYm4G93Xun7cwHer words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.

And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.


Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals

new fiction: dark matter

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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. 

 

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.

 

that time I wrote a book in two months

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I wrote a book. I’m in the darkest hours I’ve known and this book came like a torrent. I can’t take on major work projects because I can’t focus, and I can’t tattoo tiny smiles on my face for the people who want me cured, transactional, and normal again–but I can write a book of linked stories that I dare say is better than the novel that I’m set to publish next year. And I wrote 180 good pages, 48,000 words in two months. It took me a lifetime to write my first book, two years on my second, and both endured major surgeries, required backup generators, and defibrillators on standby. This book simply came, effortlessly, and I printed these pages and stared at them thinking, what the fuck is this? Words, illustrations, and photographs surround me on the day I’ve embarked on turning my mental beat around. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this just yet because it’s not visually ready (although the story is there and it’s sound albeit in need of copy-editing), but it’s something that suggests an urgency. It’s something that needs to be doing something. It’s not like anything else I’ve written that requires cooling on a rack. Part of me is nervous about sharing a story collection with my agent without giving him a roofie first because…story collection and book publishing and yawn and fucking yawn some more. Part of me wonders how this project would have taken shape had I had more money, and then I realize I’ve enough saved for rent and the idea of one of these crowdsourcing campaigns feels unseemly, the equivalent to elegant panhandling and if there’s one aspect of my personality that’s stubborn it’s my inability to ask for help because that means I’m beholden to someone. I owe someone something and I honestly hate the idea of art as a card game, art as arbitrage, leverage. Not being beholden means this can be as strange as it needs to be. Part of me is like, fuck it, I’ll publish this whole thing online knowing maybe 5 people will read it. And part of me wonders if that still matters to me. I don’t want what to tell you other than I have this thing and it’s arrived and it’s doing the thing that newborns do–fucking cry to make themselves known, heard, cared for. This isn’t a call for advice, honestly, it’s just an update on the strange happenings going on in my life.

 

Parts of the book are here, here, and here.