An excerpt from She Came from Beyond! (a novel)
I spent the next month in a tired, pissed off state, smoking too much and starting shit just to start it. I began cracking my knuckles the way I imagined prisoners cracked theirs, as though I had nothing to lose, as though doing so would enrage police officers. I ate infrequently, and when I did I ate too much, steaks the size of toilet seats and chicken wings with thick brown-red sauce that collected under my acrylic nails and in the corners of my mouth like rust. I vomited out my lines. When it was time to move into my house I stood on the lawn smoking as the movers hauled my stuff inside along with the garish new shit I’d bought, horrible oriental rugs, ginger jars, a fake elephant’s foot for my umbrellas. And I didn’t even have an umbrella, was the thing. I imagined that this must’ve been the way that Keith Richards reacted when he found himself in love with a man who was already married. I imagined that he bought ginger jars up the ass. Rooms filled with ginger jars, great big fuck yous to life and society and the media and whatever. Yes. We were just alike, Keith Richards and I.
At night I would lock my doors and lie down on my new bed, actually, intentionally, the same model on which I’d lain with Harrison, and watch the ceiling fan, the eerily spinning daisy of it, and I would tell myself that I was better off this way. My art was fulfilled this way. I was cute and drunk and my teeth hurt all the time, and I couldn’t figure out how you could miss a person you didn’t know. It seemed a cosmic jerk-off, a painful alien blip, their follow up to anal probing.
One night I heard a woman chasing after a man after the bars had closed. I imagined her as blond, raw-skinned and large boned, thick around the waist, wearing jeans and a flannel over a camisole. Some kind of too-high sandals that showcased cracked heels and scarlet-painted hammertoes. She was pleading with the man, the likes of whom I could not picture.
If you ever loved me …
I love you, I’ll always love you.
I don’t know why any of this is happening …
Can you give me a minute; can’t you just give me a single minute?
To which the man called back, you’ve been asking for a minute for two and a half hours!
And she began pleading faster, as though his acknowledgment, such as it was, came like a gulp of water to her.
I listened to the two of them for blocks, until I couldn’t be sure whether or not it was really them, or the sound of a car mixed with the wind and the monotone of my own breath. I was so very still, feeling propelled, slingshot by my heart out into the world and lonely, complicated as math. How was I not that woman, with her sunburned skin and painful cracked heels and broken, yearning heart? How was I not that man, a tired, disembodied voice, a long silhouette fading?
* * *
Spurred by guilt and the sad washing machine of my guts, I called Troubadour Bath and Groom and asked Sybil if she’d have an early supper with me at Señor Squawk’s. She agreed, somewhat testily, and at first I attributed her bad mood to a tough day at work. She was always having tough days at work, although when you considered it was in her job description to express the anal glands of dogs, you couldn’t really blame her.
“Isn’t is so fun here?” I asked, too brightly. “Isn’t it just a scream? The bird and all?”
Señor Squawk perched tiredly at the hostesses’ desk, its demeanor half misery, half methadone. It seemed to be suffering from any number of skin- and feather-related conditions, and the fact that he was wearing that sombrero served only to make the bird’s existence more sadly absurd. It would have done really well in a production of a Beckett play, just hanging around and reminding people that time is an illusion and death close at hand. I asked Sybil if she wanted to guess how many sunflower seeds the bird could eat to win those free nachos.
“No,” she said. “What do I care how much a dying bird can eat?”
“But, how can you not care?”
“It’s pathetic,” she said, ripping her napkin into long strips and placing them beside her in a pile like droopy noodles. “This place is pathetic. One time, a girl I know from work came here with her husband and they did that sunflower seed challenge and the goddamn bird ended up vomiting on their table. Or, whatever it is they do. Regurgitate.”
“It vomited on their actual table?” I asked.
“Yeah. When they … when you take the challenge, a guy dressed as a magician brings the bird over with a little gold bowl of sunflower seeds and everyone stands and claps and makes a big deal over every seed it eats. ONE! TWO! THREE! Like The Count, or something. So, anyway, the bird wasn’t feeling it. It ate like nine seeds and then it just BLAAAAGH.”
“Why would the guy who brings the bird over be dressed like a magician, though? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s the part of the story that doesn’t make sense to you, Easy? That’s the part?” She sat back and pushed her napkin strips away.
I said, “What’s up your ass, man?” Maybe she’d never been the most fun person in the world, but I’d never known her to get all antagonistic about a vomiting parrot.
“I work quite hard, actually. I work for my money. We can’t all lie around in furry panties to pay the bills, you know.” She drummed her fingers after that, then softened. “It’s very lonely in our apartment. In my apartment. Very quiet.”
“Are you? Are you sorry that the woman with all the Marie Osmond dolls has started inviting me to her tea parties? And that I’ve thought about going? And bringing wine?”
“She and the dolls would probably like that very much,” I said.
A waiter came around and Sybil ordered like three entrees and a big thing of potato skins, explaining that her hours had been cut and she was short on cash. She could eat for days on a leftover Mexican feast. I ordered a diet selection, something called The Slim Ole. It was strips of grilled chicken and swampy smelling guacamole and hunks of tomato that looked like infected gums served in a lettuce cup. The waiter told me that I could enjoy it with a fork or “as a wrap,” as though crushing this abomination in on itself would somehow create a sophisticated dining experience. I ordered a big margarita, too, because it was beginning to look like a big margarita kind of day.
“I can give you some money,” I told Sybil, and she spat back with, “I’m not a prostitute!” So, I ordered another drink.
“What is this even about?” asked Sybil.
“I wanted to tell you about my
“Oh, god, are you pregnant?”
“No. No, why would you say that?”
“I don’t know,” said Sybil. “Seems linear.”
“It’s about a guy. That one I used to talk to on the Internet. Harrison.”
“Yeah?” Said Sybil. “So he’s married?”
“Jesus Christ. How did you know that?”
“Because you’re pretty basic, Easy. You have about two speeds: Anorexic and Adulterer.”
“What about Alcoholic?”
“Well, give yourself some time. Is this why you invited me out? To give you some kind of pardon?”
I looked at her; she looked like hell. Thinner, but sick-thinner, and bumps of cystic acne pressed out of the skin around her jaw like knuckles. The eyes that stared out at me were haunted and mad.
“I just don’t have a lot of people to turn to,” I said.
“And why is that? Is it because you fucking disappear when anyone seems as though they might be starting to need you? Is it because the people in your life are only as attractive as your options?”
“No, you look. You invited me out, we’ve been here for like 45 minutes and you haven’t asked me about me, about my life, about Richard. He’s filed for divorce, did you know that? He’s moved that person into our house. She’s sleeping in our bed. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Yes, bad. Terrible. Completely lost. Then, after moving out and abandoning me in my time of need, you drag me out to this
ESTABLISHMENT and try to get a mea culpa for fucking a married man.”
“No,” I said, “it’s not like that. I just wanted to know what you thought.”
“I think it’s a bad idea. I think that you shouldn’t do it.”
“Well, OK. Thank you. Thank you for your opinion.”
Sybil motioned for the waiter; I ordered another drink. She asked him for a bunch of those Styrofoam takeout things and started loading them up with food very meticulously, all the different entrees very neat in their little white suitcases.
“I can’t stay,” she said, not looking up.
“I’m going to be here for a while,” I said, and then, “you know, nothing’s written in stone. We haven’t even kissed. He emails, he calls. I don’t answer. It’s not like anything’s happened.”
“Define anything,” said Sybil, her cartons stacked high. The waiter brought her a plastic bag to carry them. “I’m not trying to pile on here, but you’re going to have an affair with that man. It’s not like you can stop yourself. It’s not like you can stop pretending that you don’t have a choice.”
“I have a choice. I’ve made a choice. But, I like him. I like him.”
“That’s not even kind of a valid excuse,” said Sybil. “I don’t know who you think you’re fooling. You just prance around and magical things happen to you. Your stupid job, your stupid charmed life.”
“Hey, I was a goddamned orphan!”
“Right, right. ‘Adrienne Barbeau is my mother. Now I’m beautiful and sad and theatrical and I need to fuck all the married men of the world to feel better!’”
“I don’t know what I ever did to you,” I said, a stupid thing to say, a thing that made no sense, and she stood carefully under the burden of her leftovers and paused for a moment, considering me.
“Thank you for my food,” she said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“For you, for your sake, you should think about your karma.”
I snorted into my drink. Karma. Fucking karma. The way that the sum of all of a person’s previous lives factor into the quality of their future lives, right? No, at last just another way for women to shit on each other.
“I’ll do that,” I said.
She nodded and left; I stayed around for a while and drank and watched that queasy bird.
At home, after several attempts to jam my key into the doorbell, I dropped my coat and slumped in front of the computer.
An email from Harrison: A capture of his airline ticket to Monterey. He wrote, “Can you get off?”
* * *
Before Monterey, I visited my gyno, in the good part of town, near the nice houses with the stone lions, and asked them to put me on something that wouldn’t make me gain weight. They acted as though that shouldn’t be my biggest concern.
“I’m on TV,” I said. “It’s a big concern.”
“Have you thought about condoms?” asked my nurse-practitioner, a mere slip of a girl with red hair and a ring through her nose. I probably had like five years on her, and there she was, with enough of a degree to get paid for looking inside my vagina.
“I rarely think about condoms,” I said.
“I mean, you know, I’m just asking because of the gaining weight thing.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Every man I’ve ever been with has always said that condoms make it feel like nothing.”
“Makes what feel like nothing?”
“The vagina, I guess. The act of sex.”
“Well, you tell those men that if that’s how they feel, they should just masturbate. You should tell them, ‘it’s a small load, do it yourself.’” After that she was very proud of herself; it was punctuated with a curt little nod of the head.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s situational,” was a thing I often answered to things that had no appropriate answer. My old answer to these things was, “well, these are complicated times.” These are phrases that got me through a lot, but even their considerable weight was no match for the thing that the nurse wanted me to say to boys who didn’t want to wear condoms.
“The only thing that is a hundred percent certain is abstinence.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve gained weight not having sex before, so I’d like to try something else.”
Then she told me about the diaphragm, which sounded like some crazy blast from the past, like you might find it in an old box with a lava lamp and a rotary phone. It sounded like a hat for the uterus.
“Oh, wow,” I said.
“They are not very popular today,” said the nurse, and then she made this small shooing wave with her hand, as though she was so done with the people of today, “but they are effective if you use them correctly.”
“That’s a pretty big ‘if.’” I said.
“Oh, it’s not really complicated, but it can be dislodged by certain penis sizes or heavy thrusting.”
“Dislodged?” I said. I did not like that word in this context. It was fine for talking about a kernel of popcorn that needed extracting from one’s teeth, but I rejected the idea of a massive, veined cock like a bottle opener that meant to pop a hat off my uterus.
The nurse nodded, her bottom lip hitching up, understanding my needs.
“If you’re uncomfortable touching your vagina and vulva, it’s probably not the best idea for you to have the diaphragm.”
“I don’t really have a problem touching my vagina and vulva,” I said, waiting for something, maybe laughter or cheering. It amazed me how out of content everything felt, even in context. Being part of a television show, or even enjoying TV, had made me so aware of the absurdity of every single moment and that I always half-expected it to be acknowledged in some real, satisfying way, with big reaction shots and landlords who heard everything and understood something nonsexual to be sexual, rushing in to preserve someone’s chastity while wearing ascots and loud slacks. I had no patience with the real world, where people swallowed their lines and stared blankly, horrified of being singled out and mocked.
I got out of there with three months’ worth of birth control pills, as it was the thing that required the least amount of effort. I could not sit there, legs spread to aching, and have my uterus fit for a hat. I did not like the nurse enough, or I might have. As it was, she was not the sort of person that I wanted to share that much time with. She would not make stupid jokes or ask me how I was doing or even talk about her boyfriend’s cat and its various medications. She would camp out quietly between my legs and go about her business without ever looking up, like some little old German man tinkering at a pocket watch, and I couldn’t have handled it. The moroseness of it, a girl toiling away in the salt mines of my vadge.
And so I would find myself in the coziest of inns after a puddle jump to San Francisco and another to Monterey, staring at two twin beds that seemed to chide and challenge concurrently, dressed in something dashingly concise like a peacoat over dark jeans and boots, like a girl who didn’t even know how to be out of clothes, ever. And Harrison was there, also with a black coat and jeans and that rolled hat, which in my mind had already reached mythical proportions.
“Do you have anything?” asked Harrison.
“No. No, I was tested.” I wished that I had copies of the tests to give him, that’s how good they were.
“Good, but that’s not what I meant.”
“Oh,” I said, and then, “Oh. Yes, I went on the pill … they put me on the pill.”
“When I invited you to see the shark?”
He seemed surprised or just happy, and it occurred to me that this thing, this conversation, was not a thing that would ever be less awkward, for me or for anyone, regardless of how old I was or how many times I went through it.
“Because I have condoms but I would rather not use them. They aren’t my favorite.”
“The nurse told me you would say that,” I said, remembering. I didn’t tell him the joke about the “small load,” though, as it seemed uncouth.
“You’ve taken a pill?”
“Yes,” I said, and I had, I’d taken it the day I’d picked it up at the pharmacy, and then I’d gotten a headache and gained two pounds in the following two hours. And I didn’t take another. I hadn’t wanted to be fat and in pain. I’d stopped and the weight, and the headache, went away.
Things happened very quickly, the way they do, and the novelty of making love to a married person fell away and was replaced by making love to a person I really liked and I didn’t, as I had planned I might, think about a wife, round as a ball of yarn, sitting home waiting for Harrison to call. I didn’t think about their wedding or how it may have happened; I didn’t edit wedding pictures in my mind with frilly script and black and white or sepia tones. When Harrison yanked my head back by my ponytail and bit my neck, I didn’t imagine him on his knees before another woman with a little jewelry box open like a hungry Pac-Man. And it was my name that he said, not someone else’s.
After, I stood at the counter in the kitchenette in my panties and ate a rotisserie chicken with my fingers in the bland, buzzing light of a dying bulb. There was a small, dirty window through which I could watch the goings-on of the gas station/mini-mart/Greyhound stop across the street. I’d actually stopped inside the mini-mart after we’d first checked in, and an Asian man had watched me carefully as I looked around for creamer, and I’d wanted so badly to win his favor for some reason, I bought a strawberry car freshener in the shape of a tree and a tiny eyeglasses repair kit. The creamer I would find later at a Walgreens downtown when Harrison and I went for a walk. It had been funny, he’d seen a sign for French Laundry and assumed it was the world famous restaurant; he waved me off when I’d told him that the real one was in Napa, then we got closer and saw that the sign was attached to a dry cleaners filled with Mexican workers. “This should be a running joke with us,” he’d said, “the first time we went to French Laundry.”
I didn’t say that maybe people weren’t meant to pick and choose running jokes, that maybe a running joke just kept popping up and finally a couple just stopped fighting it and decided that it should be funny. That it should be like a shared psychosis, a flying dog in the room that only they could see and chose to chortle about. I did not say these things. We bought creamer and went back to the motel and made love and then I stood nakedly eating chicken watching people waiting for the bus, getting on the bus, getting off the bus. Harrison came up behind me and put his hands on my waist. He wanted to know what I was doing all the way over here.
“Chicken,” I said, my mouth full of chicken. I didn’t mention that I was also standing to give the semen a chance to drip out, in the event that taking one birth control pill two weeks before having sex was not as effective as I might have hoped.
“You can eat chicken with me,” said Harrison, his hands sliding up to cradle my breasts, and I shuddered a little. The bright opposition of the scene, sex vs. not sexy, was too much for a moment and I felt wrong, the subject of some random fetish website, topless women covered in chicken grease, badly lit.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes,” I said, shaking my head. I turned on the warm water and peeled open a little soap wrapped like a chocolate so that I could wash my hands.
We went and sat on the unrumpled bed and I hugged a pillow, suddenly modest. I am not good at bare-breasted conversation; as Susan Sarandon once said, “It’s hard not to be upstaged by your own nipples,” and I have always believed that with the greatest of conviction.
“It’s normal,” said Harrison, “whatever you’re feeling or thinking about.”
“I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never … what I mean is I need you to tell me what I’m thinking and feeling is normal.”
“I’m sure it is,” I said, and then, “I don’t know. Does it involve daggers?”
“Well, not daggers, the plural. Maybe a single dagger.”
“Of course a fucker like you would be married,” I said. “Of course a person like you, who I like and who is not boring and who is cute and wears a hat like you do, of course you’re married. I guess I should count myself lucky that you aren’t crazy and don’t have a shitload of kids.”
I was overcome for the first time by the unfairness of it, by the fact that it might be me getting the shit side of the deal. There had always been a satisfaction to it, I guess, even knowing nothing real about Harrison’s wife. It was a general feeling of being chosen, and I won’t even say that that feeling was alien to me, it was just good. You hear so much about the kind of woman who will mess around with a married man and there are all those daddy issues that are implied, all that father acceptance and whatever, and of course none of that ever panned out with me. I just liked not being too old to prance around in jean shorts and get paid for it. And in my deepest heart I knew that I deserved to not be too old to prance around in jean shorts and get paid for it.
I lay back and Harrison lay back with me. I was touching his head and face, the hair cut equally close on both, a bristling braille for the fingers, and we were kissing. It had been a very long while since I’d kissed on the mouth, as I adhered to some odd solidarity with the Pretty Woman in believing that actual intimacy was the final frontier, a place of red rocks and little to no oxygen, and then the pillow was gone and what we shouldn’t have done we were doing again, harder.
And before I drifted off, my panties still wedged into me like a slingshot, both beds a deep crater like the resting place of a bomb or a very fat man, Harrison murmured into my ear that he had two children, a 15-year-old and a 13-month-old. It was one of those times I have sometimes when I am worried even though I understand that I must be dreaming, because what would be the alternative? I couldn’t be grounded for failing an algebra class—I was nearly 30. My parents could not ground me—I was a homeowner. Dad and my stepmom were contentedly raising my 5-year-old brother, Harry, and my 4-year-old sister, Peony, a name my stepmom had been inspired to select maybe from a Disney movie or maybe from a bottle of shampoo. There were better, younger, cuter ponies to bet on, and I knew this because I had attended all the weddings and births; I’d held the babies and seen their worth broadcast across my father’s face, the kids themselves weighed down with their parents’ happiness. Certainly I could not be in love with a married man who had two children, a teenager, and a still-baby. What would be the sense in that? What could I do except for rise early, get on a bus, and leave the sharks and boys in Monterey sleeping, a never opened carton of creamer stuffed in my pocket like some poison or lube, like nothing.
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