A short story from Smart Girl, Dumb Love of The Breakup Girl Series
Carl was my first love. It took One Week for me to fall in love with him. One Week. That’s it. Giddy teenage love, propelled by hormones and insecurity. Intense. We lost our virginity together, in a tent, fumbling adolescent sex. Did it go in? I think so. We tried to stifle our moans, to keep our secret, but we failed. Between breaths I could hear my best friend sobbing through the thin nylon walls of her nearby tent.
I went through two years of high school romance with Carl before I decided I needed to experience something fresh. I loved him, the same love as that first Week, only a little less urgent and intense. Now our love was full, soft, familiar. Problem. I was seventeen. I craved the new, the unique. Carl was kind, unfailingly tender, but no longer expressed the same surprise and disbelief when I told him I loved him, or when I let him pull my pants down in the back of his car. I wanted someone to worship me. I told Carl I needed a break. Just a little one. Surprise and Disbelief.
Mark was ten years older than me. He welded bikes at Klein during the week, then raced them down cliff faces on weekends. He sent giant bouquets of roses to my father’s house. We went on weekend trips to the mountains. I acted wild and certain. I pretended to know what I was doing. We had sex in hotel rooms. I would get on top and fuck with a ferocity that would have shocked Carl. Mark would tell me that the guys at work made comments about the bruises on his body. But I knew he lifted his shirt for them, to show where I dug my nails into his skin.
Mark was in love with me. We rode in horse-drawn carriages around Pioneer Square. He wrote me sentimental poetry and wanted me to meet his parents. Roses kept coming. I stopped hanging them upside down from my bedroom ceiling to dry. My father’s compost bin never smelled so sweet. Mark was over-anxious. Sex was too fast, jerky. I felt like I was the one riding down the rocky mountainside on a bike without shocks. One Month. That’s it. Mark drove two hours to see me. I took him to my coffee shop, the one with the smoky upstairs and the rain-drenched windows. I put his finger in the flame of the candle and held it there. He didn’t flinch. He held my gaze and smiled. I told him it was over. Surprise and Disbelief.
I sat in Carl’s car and sobbed. He was the one I loved. Of course he would take me back. He loved me. What? I’d slept with him! He got out and paced around the car, in the rain. At first I thought it was rage that made him clench his hand and smash his fist against the back window, but then he collapsed on the wet pavement. I’d done a Terrible Thing.
When I graduated from high school, I joined the volunteer youth corps. I was going to redeem myself. I was going to build houses, save wild prairie chickens, and be a Good Person.
I was away. Carl was in Seattle, flunking out of community college. I stood at the pay phone in front of the Piggly Wiggly and talked to him for hours. I was a Good Person. I missed my ever-faithful boyfriend just like I thought I should.
Nathaniel was a poet. We met at the Denver coffee shop, the one all the writers go to. He drank Earl Grey tea and quoted Whitman and Hemingway. We had dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street. I drank wine that he ordered. I told him I had a boyfriend and was In Love. I was a Good Person. I was Faithful. He held his hand at his heart; all he wanted was my friendship. Tight curls of black hair covered his eyes. I felt like kissing his lips, but Resisted. We met again and again at the coffee shop, scribbling in tandem in black leather journals. One night I followed him out onto the streets. We wandered for hours, commenting on moonlight and laughing at the stars. Compadre, he called me. Sister Soul. I slept in his bed that night, too weary to make the drive across town to my own bed. He lay beside me, just for closeness, he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just for warmth, he said. I got nervous. This didn’t feel like being a Good Person. It was time to leave. I said please, but he didn’t let me go. I said no, but he quoted Poe and held me tighter.
There is no greater indignity than to be raped by a poet.
The gentleman drove me home in the morning. I sat like stone in the seat next to him. He opened my door for me. Sister Soul, he whispered in my ear. The worst thing ever would be to lose your friendship. The Worst Thing. I had another Worst Thing.
This time Carl and I sat in my car and we both sobbed. You got in his bed, he said. I said no, I said. I had messed up. I had failed at being a Good Person. Carl’s heart was broken, again, by me. His eyes hardened. Marry me, he said. I recoiled. I am poison. Yes, I said, but not now. We moved to New Orleans instead.
I found us an apartment one block off of Bourbon Street. We got corporate jobs and Grew Up. We established credit. We took weekend trips to Florida. I didn’t Act Out. I Led A Good Life. I never got drunk on Bourbon Street. I earned my beads with my demure smile. I lost all sexual impulse. I drank mochas in the back alley cafe and made friends with the transvestites and practicing vampires. They all drank absinthe. Carl and I went to drag queen shows and flirted with boys far prettier than me. I thought I was becoming a lesbian. I wanted to kiss the girls in the cafes. I didn’t feel like kissing Carl. One Year. One Terrible Year.
Carl started to suspect that I wasn’t attracted to him. We took starlit walks along the Mississippi River, drank red wine at quaint cafes, and danced in sudden rainstorms. But I lay still and quiet in our bed at night. I let him move above me, enter me, but I simply lay back and watched the air thicken with southern heat. Marry Me, he said, and I saw The Pain, and I knew I had done It again. Yes, I said, but not now.
Instead I took to writing in the cafes for hours, Carl home alone, waiting for me to return. When he was at work, I found the online chat rooms. I clicked on Pain. One quick typer spelled out my fantasies. I bookmarked his name. Carl went away, back home. Just for One Week. I gave the quick-typer my phone number. He spoke to me in whispers. He was a producer. He was married. He was twice my age. We talked every night, every morning. I felt flush and renewed. I walked through the French Quarter wearing loose summer dresses and no underwear, let the hot air slide between my thighs and up my belly.
The producer was captivated. Could he fly down and see me? No. Would I come to him? To New York? To Cannes, just for One Week? I delayed. I stammered. What if the fantasy died in person? Technically, I hadn’t yet consummated. Failed. Cheated. Done It. Technicality.
Carl came back. Two plane tickets arrived in the mail. One to New York, one to France. Carl saw. What are those?
I threw them on the table. We need to separate, I said. He looked at the tickets then at me. Yes, he said. Marry me first, then go.
I pulled at the hem of my dress. Yes, but not now.
We made plans to part. He would go North; I would go West. I wouldn’t go to New York. I wouldn’t go to Cannes. I would be a Good Person and miss my boyfriend like I was supposed to. He would sleep with women and catch up with me. That was The Deal. I was horribly, voraciously attracted to him. We had One Week before we moved out, moved on. We got drunk on Bourbon. The transvestites gave us drugs, and we devoured them. We had sex for an entire day. I put Miles Davis on repeat. The CD cycled around and around until the wail of the trumpet became as familiar as Carl’s breaths, my moans. Then we left.
I ran into the mountains, volunteering as an interpretive educator. I missed my boyfriend like a Good Person. I imagined him sleeping with other women. I walked out of my cabin at night into a field of buffalo, imagining Carl kissing other women. Wolves howled at night, and I imagined the moans of other women. A young ranger who worked in the park led me up a mountain to see the peregrine nests. I smoked his weed and made him laugh. I said I was crazy in love with the man I sent away. He said I was crazy. We had sex under the stars, in the prairie grass. The young ranger liked the taste of women. He stuck his whole hand inside me, licked the moisture off his fingertips. I imagined Carl tasting new tastes. I didn’t love the young ranger. He didn’t love me. We got along great. We had sex everywhere. I didn’t feel like a Good Person, but I didn’t feel like a Bad Person either. I didn’t feel. I sensed. I sensed the dirt under my back and the cool air on my thighs. I sensed Pain and I sensed Waiting. Then I sensed Life, and the young ranger drove me three hours to the closest gynecologist. Surprise and Disbelief.
I had Life. The doctor placed conception in New Orleans. In that One Week. The young ranger waited for me in the Laundromat, the only place he could sit and wait and not have to pay for something or be looked at by women waiting to have their privates examined. He told me to call Carl. He said He’d Want To Know. He drove me back to the mountains, singing me love songs. I called Carl from a payphone at the Lodge. Carl said, Marry me.
Yes, I said, but not now.
Instead we met in Salt Lake City, Utah. I picked him up at the airport, and we drove to a Holiday Inn. He stripped me down and laid me on the bed. He looked at my flat belly. There had been no other women. I had known it before he told me. Ever-Faithful. He touched the pink slit between my legs. Other men, he said and stepped away from me. I cried. I had done It again. But Carl did not cry.
We moved back home. Close to parents. I paced around the house and waited for my belly to get big.
Marry Me! Carl demanded.
Yes, I said, but not now.
He left at odd hours. He didn’t tell me where he was going. I went shopping and ran into Mark. He quivered when he saw me. He begged me to come to his apartment, to see the art he made. Fine, I said. But I have Life.
He shook it off. I had to come see.
He’d welded bicycle parts into a jagged womb, a melted lump of metal caged inside. It’s called Don’t Touch My Heart, he said. He read a poem he had written me years before. He tried to kiss me. I felt Nothing. I told him not to speak to me in public and took the bus home.
Carl was suddenly attentive. For One Week he followed me as if I were the sun and the bearer of all light. Tender. Miles Davis hummed in my ear. Walks in the woods and ice cream in bed. Then I found his cell phone. Unaware. I saw the other woman’s phone number. I knew. Surprise and Disbelief.
Carl was gone for the day, working on a house with his friend up north. One hundred miles separated us. I called the friend, and he gave the phone to Carl. I know, I said. He moaned and wrenched. It would be so easy, I said. Rocks in my pockets. The pretty green lake.
No, he said. Come, he said.
So I came. One hundred miles imagining the other woman. Every mile a new moan, a new glint of skin, a new position in bed.
I stepped out of the car. The friend moved quickly into the house. Carl ran to me. He pulled me to the grass, and we collapsed. I wrapped my arms around him, my legs. He held me tight and sobbed into my shoulder.
I did It, he said. I’m a Bad Person, he said.
Bright bright sunlight all around. Summer scents. Marry me, I said.
Yes, he said, now.
A short story from Hooked of The Breakup Girl Series
Lately, I’ve taken to sitting on the floor in my home office, in the dark. The faux leather chair in front of my computer repels me with its authority and purpose. If I sat in that chair, then I’d push the green button to power up the computer, bullied into typing. Words, words. Lines, lines. Periods, periods.
No, thank you.
Instead, I settle in the corner, next to my drafting table. I sit, and I stare at the wall. I stare at my bare toes. I stare at the bookcase packed full of the books I’ve deemed worthy for public viewing: Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, The New Yorker Anthology. My favorite novels, my Jimmy Buffett and Anne Rice, stay hidden in the closet, dog-eared and water-damaged from countless bubbly baths.
Sometimes, when I sit in the dark, I pray for my husband to take notice of my absence and come up the long stairs to talk to me. Sometimes he does. He sits on the floor, not touching me, but almost. We talk for hours about life, college, and the funny, messed-up way our daughter says please: “Pee!” He doesn’t ask to turn on the light. He allows long periods of silence. Eventually, midnight will pass us by, and his hand will search for my hand in the dark, his lips for my cheek. He’ll lead me to bed and allow me to wrap myself tight around him. Arms, arms. Back, belly. Knees, knees. Ankle, ankle.
Sometimes, when I pray he will talk to me, he does not. It doesn’t matter how long I sit there or how much I project my sighs towards the stairwell. I imagine him hiding away in the garage, carefully turning little models of cars we can’t afford around and around in his palm, contemplating whether or not he should sand the convertible down and paint it. Possibly forest green. No, lipstick red, like the one he saw on I-5. I tiptoe downstairs for a glass of water, or, more likely, a glass of wine.
“Don’t you have a paper to write?” he asks, his voice drifting from the half-open door to the garage.
“Yes,” I say, freezing mid-step.
He doesn’t respond. My feet shuffle across the linoleum. I reach up into the highest cupboard, stretching my calves, my back. My fingers wrap around the base of the bottle.
“Did you turn in the application for our health insurance?”
“No.” Tip and pour. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Sometimes I wish he would stay away from me all night—and he does. I simply sit and cry. All night. Simmering sobs that swell and diminish and swell again. Tidal.
I realize that this is not normal behavior. I doubt that the other women I know cry at night after their children go to sleep. Not my mother, not my schoolmates, not the perky anchorwomen on the morning show.
To cover my habit with something a little more sane and acceptable, I tried once to pretend as though I was meditating. I had seen an article on mediation featured on the cover of Newsweek. That makes it an acceptable activity. I gave meditation a sincere try, but my mind refused to clear. Lists of all the things I needed to do when I emerged from my mental retreat scrolled through my mind, chores flashing like neon. My back slumped and I uncrossed my legs, pulling my knees up to rest my head.
“This is much more peaceful,” I whispered to Newsweek, as my eyelashes flickered across the skin of my kneecaps.
I am seeing a counselor. I thought it would be for the best. My husband thought it would be for the best. My counselor is Tibetan. Really, from the actual country of Tibet. That means he must be wise and enlightened. His office bookcase holds golden scrolls and miniature Zen gardens, as well as such books as Phobias and Paranoia, The Modern Feminist, and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Co-Dependent Behavior. What books does he consult after I leave the office? Which interesting case study do I compare to? The titles replay over and over in my mind while he talks to me. His diagnosis is vague. He is too gentle. I’m waiting for him to tell me I’m nuts. He doesn’t say it. Instead, he tells me I need to “live in the moment.” I nod my head. My eyes are wide.
At first, it sounds like a brilliant idea, but then I wonder what happens after “the moment” has passed. The lists in my head still exist. Interest gains on my student loan debt. My daughter remains eight pounds lighter than all the other two-year-olds on the doctor’s “healthy babies” chart. I continue to drink red wine in the good goblets, even when no one else is home. If only he could just tell me that I’m crazy, we could get it out in the open and deal with it. Crazy.
“Do you think the anxiety you’re feeling is due to your past sexual assault?” he asks.
“Nope, old news.”
His face clouds.
Oh, he must have thought he had the answer. “I only wrote it down on the intake form because it specifically asked.”
“What do you think about the nightmares you mentioned?”
“I dunno. In a way, I kind of enjoy them. They’re fun.” My counselor looks alarmed. I stammer, “When I am terrified in my dreams, I suddenly remember it’s a dream and that it’s all in my head. Then I have the power to control what happens. That’s the fun part.”
“I see.” My counselor’s eyebrows push together. He consults the intake form once more. “Does your mother’s drinking bother you?”
“Um, yeah. But that’s not ever going to stop.” I look out the window and memorize the placement of the birds’ nests in the dying alder. I read all the building numbers I can see. I hear the cars in the street below and count the rumbles that grow and fade. Forty-two since I first sat down. My counselor is watching me. He doesn’t know what to say. He is waiting for me to reveal something. I don’t know what to offer, so I tell him about my attempts at meditation. He laughs out loud. I’m just not ready for sitting meditation, he says. I should try to meditate while I’m doing something, like walking. He says my mind isn’t capable of quietness right now.
“People your age often go through times of stress and ambition. It’s completely normal.”
“OK,” I say, nod my head and try to look convinced. I don’t want him to feel disappointed. This is why I fake orgasms. I hate to let people down.
We fill out the questionnaires together. The brochures pile up on the table between us. Are you Paranoid? Does Anxiety Disorder Disrupt Your Life? Do You Have ADD? Are You an Alcoholic? Do You Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Is Depression a Problem for You? My counselor asks me leading questions to determine if I have whichever dysfunctions the surveys diagnose. Nothing is conclusive. I score borderline on every test, except paranoia. I am clearly not paranoid. I am relieved, then my mind clicks. If I were paranoid, then it would mean I could ignore my anxieties. They wouldn’t be real. But, I’m not paranoid, according to the ten questions on the survey.
“You seem to have symptoms from many disorders, but they are really only a problem if they affect how you function in life. You’d know if they were big problems.” I bite my lip and squint my eyes. My counselor twists this hands together, then asks, “Do these symptoms affect how you function in your day-to-day life?”
I sit back and look at the ceiling. Hmmm. I’m the most responsible student I know, even with my overloaded schedule and outside commitments. My projects at work earn me high praise and opportunities to advance. My mind flashes to my daughter, always clean, happy, and well-dressed. In my home, I maintain order and cheer. I keep my husband’s clothes clean and hanging neatly in our closet. I always have dinner ready at 5:30, even when I have to pick up our daughter. Even the most stable people I know couldn’t handle the day-to-day I sustain.
“I guess I function just fine.” Everything points to it. It must be so.
I stare out the window again. The birds are building up their nests. The dying alder is having a hard time holding itself up under their weight. My counselor watches me. He pulls a box of tissues off his shelf and places them on the wobbly end table beside me. I blink at them, at him. Does he expect me to cry?
I sit in the dark again. This time, on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor. My husband is gone. He took our daughter to visit his parents. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want any lessons from my ever-helpful mother-in-law on how to cook spaghetti or the correct way to sweep the floor. No, thank you. My husband didn’t press the issue. He simply grasped our daughter under one arm, kissed my cheek, and sped away in his sputtering Honda.
My floor is filthy. I didn’t notice until I eased myself down and my bare thighs scraped across old coffee grounds. At this point, a good sweeping would simply brush the dirt off all the coffee and wine stains. I’ll never win Housekeeper of the Year. Oh, well. I wrap my arms around my legs, and sweep my eyelashes across my knees.
Fans of Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis will love these short stories of modern love affairs crafted with thoughtful, lyrical prose.
The four short stories in HOOKED show a darker, more contemplative side of The Breakup Girl. We meet characters well entrenched in their first marriages, yet struggling still with challenges such as depression, ambition and lust.
Familiar and well-drawn, Nelson’s characters welcome us into the most intimate moments of their lives, where we witness first-hand their private triumphs and failures in a universe of different loves.