Blueprints for Building Better Girlsby Elissa Schappell
Elissa Schappell’s Use Me introduced us to a writer of extraordinary talent, whose “sharp, beautiful, and off-kilter debut” (Jennifer Egan) garnered critical acclaim and captivated readers. In Blueprints for Building Better Girls, her highly anticipated follow-up, she has crafted another provocative, keenly observed, and wickedly smart work of
Elissa Schappell’s Use Me introduced us to a writer of extraordinary talent, whose “sharp, beautiful, and off-kilter debut” (Jennifer Egan) garnered critical acclaim and captivated readers. In Blueprints for Building Better Girls, her highly anticipated follow-up, she has crafted another provocative, keenly observed, and wickedly smart work of fiction that maps America’s shifting cultural landscape from the late 1970s to the present day.
In these eight darkly funny linked stories, Schappell delves into the lives of an eclectic cast of archetypal female characters—from the high school slut to the good girl, the struggling artist to the college party girl, the wife who yearns for a child to the reluctant mother— to explore the commonly shared but rarely spoken of experiences that build girls into women and women into wives and mothers. In “Monsters of the Deep,” teenage Heather struggles to balance intimacy with a bad reputation; years later in “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,” she must reconcile her memories of the past with her role as the mother of an adolescent son. In “The Joy of Cooking,” a phone conversation between Emily, a recovering anorexic, and her mother explores a complex bond; in “Elephant” we see Emily’s sister, Paige, finally able to voice her ambivalent feelings about motherhood to her new best friend, Charlotte. And in “Are You Comfortable?” we meet a twenty-one-year-old Charlotte cracking under the burden of a dark secret, the effects of which push Bender, a troubled college girl, to the edge in “Out of the Blue into the Black.” Weaving in and out of one another’s lives, whether connected by blood, or friendship, or necessity, these women create deep and lasting impressions. In revealing all their vulnerabilities and twisting our preconceived notions of who they are, Elissa Schappell, with dazzling wit and poignant prose, has forever altered how we think about the nature of female identity and how it evolves.
“The women in Elissa Schappell's new story collection ought to come with a warning label. Danger: Contents under pressure. Emotionally sensitive compounds may be present. Toxic sentiments could be released if disturbed or shaken. . . . Keep hands out of reach at all times, because also: These women bite. . . . Schappell’s stories acutely evoke the disorientation induced in women by our culture’s barrage of mixed messages . . . . [Schappell] is a diva of the encapsulating phrase, capable of conveying a Pandora’s box of feeling in a single line.” —Jennifer B. McDonald, The New York Times Book Review
“Darkly funny. . . As distinctive and tart as the cherry on its cover, the stories have a comedic touch and ironic edge, softened by moments of memorable tenderness.” —Elizabeth Taylor, "Editor's Choice", Chicago Tribune
“Electrifyingly alive, funny, and thrillingly honest. You know these women, right down to the way they like their coffee. Schappell is an effortless stylist." —Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe
“Memorable . . . seductive . . . Schappell’s commanding, honest prose taps into a deeper sense of story that promises to resonate with many readers.” —S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle
“Schappell’s stories read like snapshots—capturing precise moments from a woman’s life from a distinct perspective. Considered together, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a treasured photo album.” —Bookpage
“Despite the talent for arch comedy that Schappell and her characters share, the tragic dimension of each story sears the heart." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Schappell…creates wise, sexy, funny, and fathoms-deep tales of dire miscommunication.” —Booklist
“This is brave stuff. I learned things reading this book. Hilarious and heartbreaking at the very same time, these mothers, daughters, wives are all struggling to be honest with themselves—and we get the gift of Schappell being honest with us. These characters are poignant, searing, memorable.” —Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge
"Like many American women, Elissa Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap. In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder the mystery of how those girls became these women.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children
“Elissa Schappell writes earthquakes into existence—these stories will make you laugh until you’re hoarse and sob, too, often within one perfectly rendered, unforgettable scene. Schappell reminds us that we don't have to look far afield for exotic, complex, hilarious and tragic stories—her rendering of women's inner lives is fresh and necessary. Her humor is the flashlight she shines into the deepest, darkest, truest aspects of her character’s experiences.” —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“This is a wise, tough, and slyly funny book by a writer with a beautiful sense of detail and character. Schappell is a marvel when she gets in close with her people and brings them to moments of horrible, glorious revelation.” —Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
“Elissa Schappell's voice is so lively, smart, and honest—reading these stories is like sitting on a bench with a great friend and talking for hours about what's really going on; Schappell's such an incisive observer but she sees what she sees with big generosity and humor and warmth—what a pleasure to read these bursts of life!” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
The New York Times
- Simon & Schuster
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- 5.88(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.01(d)
Read an Excerpt
Blueprints for Building Better Girls
I woke up in my own bed. Alone. Fully dressed, including underwear. Thank you very much. Lucky me because the ballet flats and pink polo shirt weren’t mine, only the jean mini. I like to call it my Houdini skirt because it makes your butt disappear and you can slip out of it even in handcuffs. That’s a joke.
I was feeling pretty good about myself. What a good girl I am, I thought, tucking my comforter up under my chin. You know, who cares if I was so hungover my head felt like a big old pumpkin someone had smacked with a baseball bat. Then, out of habit, I felt for my pearls, before remembering I’d lost them weeks ago. Crap. How long would it take before I stopped doing that?
Why do camels drink?
I could hear Butter in our bathroom singing along to the Beach Boys, I wish they all could be California girls, and washing her face with Noxzema, which kills me. I mean, only little kids and old ladies use that stuff. My mom used to put it on my shoulders when I got sunburned. Which was nice because you know it’s not the same if you do it yourself.
I’d never known anybody with a name like Butter until I got to college. My mother asks me, “What kind of people name their child after a dairy product?” I tell her, rich people, and she has to take my word for it.
When I explain it’s a nickname Butter’s brothers came up with because when she was a baby her hair was yellow, my mom says, “And the Butter just stuck?” My mother is constantly saying stuff she doesn’t know is hilarious. She and my dad are both from small towns in the Midwest. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and his dad was a dairy farmer, and so on and so on. I wouldn’t tell anybody that. No reason. I’d told Butter once, I think, but she’s my best friend.
Anyway, Butter’s hair isn’t yellow now. It’s that white-blond color you only see on little kids, which goes with her eyes, which are this sort of unreal swimming pool blue. She says she misses the ocean. Which maybe explains why she only wears sailor suit pajamas.
My mom also wants to know why, if Butter is from California, she has a British accent. I can’t really explain except to say, You know how some people go abroad and come home with a tapeworm or yellow fever? Well, Butter spent last semester in London and came home with a British accent. Our friend Deb (who spent the semester in Italy but didn’t come back rolling her r’s, just twenty pounds heavier) keeps telling her to please, just drop it. She probably wishes she had an Italian accent.
Behind Butter’s back, Deb accuses her of being a poser. To her face she says, “It’s not you,” but Butter says she can’t help it. I believe her because I know it’s contagious. One beer now and I get all cockney. Bugger this, and blimey that. It makes Deb bonkers. She says, “Are you trying to drive me out of my mind? Jesus H. Christ, listen to yourself, you sound ridiculous.” She’s wrong, though. You know how glasses make you seem smarter; it’s the same thing with a British accent.
“Butter,” I moaned, as loudly as I could. I thought she should know I hadn’t gone all Karen Ann Quinlan on her. It wasn’t even noon and I was totally awake. I wanted the points. She didn’t need to know I woke up in Blackout City.
“Is that you?” Butter says. Like who else would it be?
“I think so,” I say, sort of annoyed. I mean I hadn’t had a scandal in my bed (and, for the record, she was conked out the whole time) in months because last time, she’d thrown such a fit you’d think I fucked Charlie Manson with the lights on. I mean, she was so mad she was practically in tears.
“Did you ring your mum?” she yells, but I can barely hear her over the roar of the faucet. “I don’t want her to think I’m not giving you her messages, love. Please.”
Fuck. Just kill me now, I think.
“Come again, ducks? Pipe up.”
The minute Butter got out of the bathroom, I’d tell her I called my mom back. I’d say, she didn’t sound worried to me—had she actually said that? That she was worried about me? Because all she said to me was that she just wanted to hear my voice and tell me my dad’s back had gone out but was fine now, and that my grandmother was in the hospital, which wasn’t good, of course, and oh, she wanted to know how would I feel about taking a trip to Europe this summer—sort of like a college graduation present.
No, kill that—Butter would know I was lying.
I roll on my side and try to rock myself back to sleep. Rocking usually helps, except my arms and legs ache like I’ve been dragged through the streets by wild dogs.
What I needed was to see Andy. Andy. My Andy. I’ve never known anybody like Andy before. I’ve never had someone who liked me no matter what I did. I mean, really liked me. I knew, no matter what, I could always go to Andy, and curl up in his lap like a kitten and bury my face in his neck, and say, “Go ahead, tell me how horrible I was. Give me the bad news first, so by the end I won’t feel so much like shooting myself in the head.”
I knew that Andy, unlike Butter, wouldn’t judge me. He’d never leave some stupid magazine quiz like “Are You a Raging Alcoholic?” on my pillow. No, he’d say, “You were cute. Don’t worry about anything.”
And I’d say, “Are you sure? Don’t protect me, Andy. I’m a big girl, I can take it,” I’d say, eyes screwed shut, arms covering my head, like the bad news is going to come in the form of a storm of rotten eggs and rocks.
And he’d say, “Belinda”—he was the only person at school who called me by my real name. “Why would I do that, Belinda?” Three years of college, and he was the first, and he said my name so prettily. Bell-linda, not Bull-linda. Bell-lindahh, with a sigh at the end.
And I’d say, “Okay, then why am I so sore today?”
And he’d say, “We danced a lot.” (Andy was not a big dancer.)
And I’d say, “Okay, Fred Astaire, how did I get home?”
And he’d say, “I carried you.”
And I’d say, “You did? You carried me all the way home?”
And he’d say, “Of course I did.”
I love that of course I did. Of course I took care of you. How often do you find someone like that? Someone you feel safe with? Like never.
It would be swell if I could call Charlotte, but she’s probably sleeping, or watching South Pacific for the hundredth time. Until I got to be friends with Charlotte, I thought only blue-hairs and fairies watched musicals.
You know what, maybe I wouldn’t even get out of bed today. Maybe I am really sick. I have to say there are days when I think I’d actually like to have something seriously wrong with me, I mean totally curable, you know, but real. Because you know when people have big stuff like that happen to them everybody sees them in a different way. Everybody forgets who they used to be, and they become better people, even though inside they’re exactly the same person.
Or maybe not so curable.
Unless it’s something like what happened to Charlotte. Nobody knew what to do with that. Butter says I’m thinking about Charlotte too much. I think no one is thinking about her enough. Even Andy, who after we told them what happened to her, said he wanted to go up to his frat and pulverize the motherfucker. Now anytime Charlotte’s name came up everybody acted funny.
It wasn’t like I meant not to call my mom. I just knew what she was going to ask me, because that woman is like a broken record. I haven’t heard from you. What have you been up to? Are you having fun? Oh, did you meet anyone special?
And I would have to tell her, two weeks ago I went to an Around the World party at ATO with Butter. In the Mexico room I sat back in this barber’s chair and did a mix-in-your-mouth margarita—which is a shot of tequila, some triple sec, then you shoot up, bite the lime out of some guy’s mouth, and lick the salt off his stomach, or his arm. No, I don’t think that really happens in Mexican barbershops. Then we skipped off to Ireland and I pounded a Guinness, after that, in Switzerland I snorted a shot of peppermint schnapps—yes, snorted; no, I don’t think that’s an authentic Swiss custom. In Jamaica I smoked some ganja. In Jonestown a guy in aviator sunglasses and a button-down shirt, with a Bible under his arm, served Kool-Aid punch out of a trash can, which probably had a jockstrap at the bottom. Why? I don’t know. Flavor? No, it doesn’t seem very hygienic. Or funny. No, I don’t think it was grain; yes, I’ve heard it could blind you. I still have the newspaper clipping—clippings—you sent me freshman year. Finally, Mom, I trekked up to the very tippy top of the fraternity house, and visited Bolivia, snowy, snowy Bolivia, and danced all night.
I mean I could tell her that, but she’d have a heart attack.
I could tell her that guys expect tit for tat, or dis for dat, when they give you lines. Not that it matters.
I could tell her that every time you visited a “country” you got a rubber stamp, like you get on your passport when you go through customs. And that it would take me three days to get the Brazil off my ass. I tried soap, baby oil, rubbing alcohol. It was fingernail polish remover that finally did the trick.
When I’d showed Butter, she howled. “You’re too much, ducks.” Butter would never let anybody rubber-stamp her butt. Then again, Butter isn’t as much fun as I am. Especially now that she’s officially one of the top-ranked girl golfers in the country. She still smokes, but only one a day. Otherwise, she says, her body would go into shock. It’s heartbreaking to watch her take that last drag, it’s like the way a man who crawled across the Sahara sucks on a canteen.
I could tell my mom that before that I’d gone to a beach party with my friend Charlotte. Yes, Charlotte, the one with the nice car. I told Charlotte before we went that there was this Around the World party I wanted to go to later. She knew. If you want to know the truth, I didn’t even think to tell her I was leaving because she was dancing with this guy, and like I’d tell my mother, She looked like she was having a blast.
And my mom would ask (wishing it was me we were talking about, not my friend), Who is this boy?
And I’d say, The guy that will rape her.
Thinking, And while that was happening I was letting some dude stamp “Brazil” on my ass.
And for once my mother wouldn’t say, Maybe he has a friend?
She would be speechless.
I could also remind her that I’m still reeling from my breakup with Stanley. Stanley, my imaginary boyfriend. I made him up so she’d quit worrying and get off my back. My mother was nuts about Stanley, she could yak about him for days. I’d tell her about how Stanley was always squiring me around town, buying me ice cream cones, and escorting me home from the library after dark. You can’t imagine how disappointed my mother was when, over parents’ weekend, Stanley’s eczema was so bad he was confined to his bed, making it impossible for them to meet. Finally, it just got to be too much. I did my best to prepare her. After that, he started acting all distant, and moody, and stopped returning my calls. Oh ho. She’d seen it coming. She said she understood why I needed to be alone, and why the mere mention of Stanley’s name was painful, and yes, that I’d be too fragile to even entertain the idea of dating for a long while. My reprieve lasted less than a month.
I could have told her about Andy, but I wouldn’t because it would just confuse her and she’d get the wrong idea and ask me all these questions I had no answers to.
What I knew was that right now, I really needed to talk to him. I’d throw my arms around him, and standing on my tiptoes, pressed tight against him, I’d whisper in his ear. Maybe he’d tell me that he loved me. He’d already done it once, just a month ago. No one, outside of my family, ever said that to me, but Andy had. He’d been hammered, sure—but you know what they say, when you’re drunk, you speak the truth. He probably didn’t even remember saying it. Which was for the best anyway, right? But he had said it. I love you, Belinda. I love you.
I was waiting for him to say, I love you, Belinda, again. He could be drunk. I didn’t care. You know, it was better that way anyhow. I just wanted him to say it again. Just to be sure.
Butter didn’t get it. She tells me that she’s told Andy to give it up, but men are idiots. Anytime she saw Andy giving me a piggyback ride, or carrying my books, or saw me sitting innocently in his lap, she shot me the stink eye. She didn’t even have to say it anymore. Leave him alone. Stop playing with him. Why are you doing this? It’s just cruel. You don’t love him.
Yes I do.
Not like that.
But I do. I’ve felt it. Around midnight, in a certain light, when he shakes his bangs into his face, then pushes them back so I can see his eyes, the way he looks at me—like he’s letting me in—I love him so much it hurts.
Did you ever wish someone would just be mean to you? Even a little?
• • •
It’s weird, but I started doing this thing in high school, of making up playlists for my funeral. Some songs have stayed the same. “Here Comes the Sun,” because my dad taught me to play it on the piano. “Amazing Grace,” because my mom would want a hymn and it would make everybody, even people I barely know, cry. You want crying. But mostly they change. Freshman year I was crazy about “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, depressing but true. Senior year it was all about the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—because that line you just might find, you get what you need slays me. And, of course, last, “Stairway to Heaven.” By the time I’d get to And she’s buying a stairway to heaven, I’d have freaked myself out totally and be sobbing so hard, like practically to the point of throwing up, it was ridiculous.
As of now, though, I end with Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” because it’s Andy’s and my song. You know, You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream. That kills me. He’d get it.
• • •
I’d only seen Charlotte twice in the last week. She hadn’t been going to class. Not that she felt like talking anyway, she just wanted to watch South Pacific. I took her a bag of cookies last time I was there. These iced circus animals, pink camels, lions, and giraffes, they looked so darn cheerful. That was it, cheerful. I was feeling so good about them, you know, then I started to worry. What if the frosting was wrong and the animals looked like they had mange or a skin disease? What if their legs were all broken off? Who knew how many of them had been decapitated?
Good thing I thought to check, because when I opened the bag it looked like a mass grave in there. Half of them were in pieces or only partially frosted. I salvaged what I could. Anyway, luckily, she didn’t seem to notice the bag had been opened.
I asked Charlotte if she needed anything. If she needed me to go anywhere with her. I meant, like, mental health services. Teddy says all you have to do is cry and flash them a copy of The Bell Jar, and they’ll pony up some Valium. I practically begged her to let me take her. I did.
• • •
Last thing I was sure of from last night was the toga party. I was over toga parties—they were strictly JV. Like New Year’s Eve parties that exist just so you can make out with a stranger at midnight. You have to. That’s the theme. I’d only stopped to grab a beer—who can resist pledges playing eunuchs, fanning you with palm fronds while you wait for the keg?
So I was standing there when this girl in a sorry-looking toga appears. It’s all pilled, but she’s got her hair braided and pinned up on top of her head like a crown, and she’s dragging along her friend, who’s twice as big as her and totally wasted. You could tell the big girl’s sheet, all pink roses and lace rickrack, was brand-new, like she’d bought it just for this party.
An ant and an elephant meet in a bar and go home together. The next morning the ant wakes up and the elephant is dead. “Damn,” the ant says, “one night of passion and I spend the rest of my life digging a grave!”
You could tell the big girl was from Minnesota, or the South—she sure wasn’t an East Coast girl, she was too big and smiley-looking. Anybody else with those big, doughy, freckled arms would have been wearing a cardigan. I kind of respected the fact that the big girl wasn’t wearing a bra, when she really should have. How much do I hate those lame skinny girls who always wear bras with their togas, their straps plain as day?
The little one is upset. She goes, “We seem to keep losing ours. Some asshole in there keeps pulling her sheet off.”
And the big girl goes, “Ah, don’t get your panties in a wad,” her voice all slurry. “It’s just a jokey.” And the little girl goes, “It’s not funny,” so mad she starts to shake. “They’re taking pictures.”
Here’s what bugged me. I knew tomorrow there was going to be some picture of this poor, dumb, big-boobed girl floating around school, her face the bull’s-eye on a dartboard in the fraternity basement (extra point if you hit her in the jugs!). They’d black out her eyes and a couple teeth, and everybody would be pointing and laughing at how fat she was, how her tits were bigger than her head. Aw, be a sport, they’d tell her. It’s just a joke. You can’t take it personally. Don’t get so broken up over this—next week it will be someone else. Everything blows over.
But you know what, she’d never forget it. Ever. You know it would come to her in the middle of the night, like a hand over her mouth so she can’t breathe, and she’d cry, and she’d pray, Oh, please, God, please if I can erase just one thing in my life, erase that thing. Someday I want to have kids.
I mean that was just my guess.
So, I fixed her toga. I’m good at that. It helped that I had a safety pin on the inside of my skirt. It had been there seriously for years. To be safe, my mom says, you should always have a safety pin and a quarter for a phone call. Still, even with the damn pin, it wasn’t easy because The Go-Gos “We Got the Beat” was blaring and the fat girl kept bouncing up and down, a big mistake in her case. Girls with big honkers should never pogo braless, unless they want a black eye. You know, I felt sorry for the fat girl, but I wanted to slap her too, pinch her arm until a bruise came up. I mean, would she even remember I’d helped her?
The whole time her friend stood there, waiting and looking miserable like she was witnessing the fall of Rome. All she wanted was to be back home in her dorm making popcorn and watching TV. She didn’t care if it turned out to be the party of the century, or worry that if she left she might miss meeting the one. She just wanted to get the hell out of there, but she wasn’t leaving her friend behind.
Back in the days when we used to all go out together, we’d say, “Leave a trail of crumbs, sugar,” which meant don’t disappear without telling someone.
The second I was done fixing the big girl’s toga she broke away, stumbling back into the party crowd, waving her arms like she thought everybody was just waiting for her to return. It was just sad.
Now when I show up at a party, people really are happy. It’s not a party without Bender. People cheer. “Yay, Bender is here, now the real fun can begin!” You don’t know what that’s like. To be special like that. To have all those people know you, have you in common. The fat girl was deluded if she thought anybody cared whether she was at that party, or passed out under a bush, or got chopped up and thrown in a cornfield.
I bet she felt like someone poured kitty litter in her mouth while she slept. She probably wet the bed. I wonder if she noticed those safety pins in her toga and wondered who did that for her. It was me.
I got the nickname Bender because I bend every which way but never break. Freshman year I jumped out of a third-story window, and rolled right out of it. Not a scratch on me. Just like a cat.
I used to be a gymnast, so I know I can take a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I cracked my head on the beam, slammed my chest into the vault, fell off the bars flat on my back, got the wind knocked out of me, saw stars, blacked out. My gymnastics coach used to tell my teammates, Belinda may not be as skilled technically as you are. She may not have your strength or flexibility, or grace, but she’s not afraid to throw the trick. If you don’t have the guts to go for it . . .
And he’d stare them down like they were a bunch of pussies. He was right. I wasn’t as good as my teammates, but I was fearless. I wasn’t afraid to throw the trick. Sometimes I wish that what happened to Charlotte happened to me, because I could take it. I’m brave.
I always say: I can do anything for ten minutes.
• • •
When Butter comes into the room, she stands over the bed in her sailor suit pajamas and looks down at me. Watching me. I catch her looking at me now all the time. I think to myself, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, which is supposed to trick your body into acting dead.
“You’re daft. I can see you, you know.” Then just when I think it’s safe, she rips off my covers. I scream. She screams.
“Bloody hell, Bender, what have you done? Gone and got yourself a black eye? Seriously? Have you looked at yourself?”
“I know. I walked smack into the door last night. I can’t believe you didn’t hear me. I wailed like a banshee.”
She crosses her arms and drops her head like I’ve done something wrong to her personally. It bugs me when she acts like this.
“You might have helped me. I was practically knocked unconscious,” I say, but she doesn’t look guilty like I hoped. She is too busy putting on her sneakers, white Keds.
Butter is one of those people whose sneakers always look brand-new even when they’re not. “You really didn’t hear me?” I’m waiting for any sign in her face, of when I came home, if it was Andy who put me to bed.
“No, mercifully,” she says in this sort of brusque, matter-of-fact way and bends down to retie her shoelaces.
“Didn’t you see Andy?”
“No.” She says this like it’s good news, like he’s been spared some terrible fate seeing me lit up, like he hasn’t a hundred times already. He isn’t like her.
“So, you’re leaving right now?” Golly, I can sound pitiful.
“I am. Unless you’re feeling a bit peckish and want to dash into town for some breaky?” she says, looking at me with that sad you-never-want-to-hang-out-with-me-anymore expression that I can’t stand.
Every Saturday morning somebody has a Wake and Bake. Who doesn’t love eating Trix-is-for-kids! and doing bong hits while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons? You’d have to be dead inside.
How lucky that this Saturday it is at Andy’s, and I was going there anyway.
I say, “Breakfast? That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“That’s brilliant,” she says, smiling so you can see every tooth.
“Listen, I’m going on the wagon,” I say, struggling to get out of bed and upright without my head falling off and rolling under the bed. “You’ll see, I’ll be the one in the bonnet riding in the back of the covered wagon. Seriously, me and Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
“Cool beans,” she says. We used to say that all the time.
It’s hard to look at her when she is smiling so hard it’s like looking into the sun. Then she looks at my skirt, and frowns. “What in the devil did you get into?”
My hands fly to cover the spot.
I remembered leaving the toga party, and thinking I’d go drop in on Andy at his frat house, but Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” was coming out of the Beta house, and it seemed like a sign, and maybe Butter and Teddy and Deb were there? I wasn’t going to stay, just check in. I wanted to dance.
I remembered the line for the ladies’ room being long, and a girl choosing to pee in the sink instead of wait, and thinking, I’ve got a skirt on, I could do that too, and then being in the upstairs hall, feeling dizzy and so sleepy, I thought, I’ll just lie down for ten minutes—just like Goldilocks—a short nap to get me back on my feet. I’d gone into an empty room, it was dark, the lights on the stereo were flickering like lightning bugs. I lay down on the couch and fell asleep . . . how long? When I woke up, I remembered seeing people standing around me, three or more bears. In the story Goldilocks takes a shortcut out the window; I just jumped up and ran.
Had I gone to Josh’s room last night? But his room was downstairs, not upstairs. Would I have done that? Did Andy know? Andy wouldn’t know. Still, even without knowing about me and Josh, Andy hated him. Andy, who never swears, calls Josh “the fucking fascist,” because he’s a member of the Young Republicans. Apparently, Andy is more passionate about politics than I realized. You’d never know from looking at Josh that he’s a dealer. Not the hang-around-the-playground-selling-Quaaludes-to-schoolkids creepy dealer, just dime bags, hash, that sort of thing. Coke. Definitely coke. Coke Adds Life. He’s a great businessman. He writes down every sale in a spiral notebook, but he never makes me pay for anything.
He was the only boy I’d do it with with the lights on because he said, “I want to look at you. I want to see your face when you come.” That just floored me. So every time I was supposed to come I’d try to make my face look sexy.
I used to practice that in the mirror when I was in high school.
Afterward he’d turn out the light and fall asleep, and I’d lie there up in his loft and stare at this poster of Van Gogh’s Starry Night over his desk. You’d be surprised what you can see once your eyes get accustomed to the dark. Once I told him that staring at that painting made me feel high, and he said, “Van Gogh cut off his ear for a woman. She was a whore.” What kind of man would do that? A crazy man.
I’m sorry, but after a man cuts off his ear for you, declarations of love like candy or flowers, even diamonds, seem cheap.
Over winter break he’d gone home to D.C. and come back dating this dimwit sophomore who was working on Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. Yes, really. And if there’s one thing that makes me crazy, it’s a hypocrite! You know I couldn’t have cared less, but PDA—the way they were always hanging on each other was just disgusting. I’d never have been caught dead holding hands or kissing in public. It was so typical. So lame.
You’d never know by the way Josh looked at me now that I was once special. We’d see each other in the student union and he’d smile, maybe wave, maybe if I was close murmur Hey, like he was such a champ to acknowledge my presence.
Not that I wanted anything more. But I was curious. So once or twice I’d cruised by his room just to see. I didn’t knock or anything, I just listened. I never heard anything, so I bet she was holding out on him. What a waste.
The last time she sensed it, poor little bunny. Animals low on the food chain need sharp instincts if they want to survive. Josh, she said, Joshy, there’s someone at the door. Get up. There’s someone there. Go check. I don’t like it.
I might have been a customer, right? The second that door opened I was a ghost. Maybe he saw the back of my head. If so, let him think I’d been partying in one of his fraternity brothers’ rooms. Yeah, that’s right, deal with that.
Had I gone to Josh’s last night? Would I? No way. Okay, maybe, yes. Okay, honestly? Yes. And, maybe I knocked. Maybe he came out, carefully shut the door behind him, and whispered, “What are you doing here? What do you want?” Maybe he suggested that I should go home. And when I said I didn’t want to, he said, “Then come back later.”
“After she leaves.”
Maybe then I tried to kiss him and he turned away, and said didn’t I know what later meant? I touched the pillow of bruise around my eye socket, the most tender place, and pressed on it. It hurt. It still hurt. I couldn’t stop, though. It hurt.
Maybe I had gone back later. Maybe I had taken off all my clothes, and climbed naked up the ladder to his loft. Maybe I had crawled into bed beside him and started kissing the back of his neck. Maybe he’d pushed my head down and said, “Jesus, can’t you just suck my cock and go?”
Or, I don’t know, maybe that was another night, maybe none of that happened at all.
I shut the bathroom door behind me and take a deep breath. Have a sense of humor about this, Bender, I say to myself as I start to get undressed. Worse things happen at sea. I look down at the spatter of stains on the front of my skirt. Like glue. The largest was in the shape of Florida. I start to see if it would come off with my fingernail, then stop. I’d never get it clean. I knew that right away, so I buried the skirt in the trash.
Then I look in the mirror. There’s a puffy ring of dark bluish purple around my entire left socket, my eyelid swollen and spongy like the time I got stung on the eye by a wasp in kindergarten. It brought tears to my eyes, but goddamn there was no reason to cry. I just felt sorry for it. Poor baby.
I turn the water up as high as I can stand it and sit down on the floor of the shower, pretending it is rain. When I get up my skin is pink and there is steam rising off me, like my superpower is the ability to bring things to a boil. Butter gave Charlotte a hard time for taking a shower that night. She said, “You didn’t! Don’t you know you’re not supposed to do that? That’s the first thing they tell you.” Butter says in America a woman is raped every six minutes, and that she didn’t mean to yell, didn’t mean to make it worse, but she’d destroyed evidence, and if Charlotte didn’t report it, he’d just do it again to another girl. I thought, What in the world did you expect her to do?
Actually, what they say is don’t try to memorize everything about him, just focus on remembering one detail. Something he can’t change—like a birthmark, or a scar. Which doesn’t really matter if you already know the person.
I chase three Tylenol with water right out of the faucet, put Visine in my eyes, get into my clean blue-and-white flowered Lanz nightgown—Butter let me stick it in with her wash, so it smells like Ocean Breeze fabric softener. I instantly feel one hundred times better.
If somebody asked what happened to my face, I’d say, It was really dumb. My friend hasn’t been feeling good, so she asked if I’d get her some books out of the library, which I was happy to do. I couldn’t really see over the top of the stack and misjudged her stairs and—you can see what happened. I went down like a ton of books.
When I come out of the bathroom, Butter has made my bed. She’s turned down the top the way my mom used to do for me at bedtime. I’d forgotten that. I barely ever make my bed.
Butter is waiting. I open my underwear drawer and take out the Ray-Bans I’d lifted off Andy’s face a few weeks ago. I had put them on and he’d said, “Those look good on you,” and he never asked for them back, so I figure he meant me to have them. That would be just like him.
“Just give me two shakes of a lamb’s tail and I’ll be ready to roll,” I say, weakly passing a brush over my hair, which is thick and long. Nebraska Corn Queen hair, my mother, a former Nebraska Corn Queen, calls it, even though I was born in New Jersey—our hair is capable of annihilating ordinary brushes. “Oh, you know what?” I say like I just remembered it. “I seem to recall that there’s a Cartoon Keg at the lads’ house this morning. We should at least stop by.”
Butter bites her lip. “Blessed hell, give it here,” she says, snapping the brush out of my hand. “Though why I bother—why I arse around with this I don’t know.”
Butter has four brothers and short hair, so brushing my hair is fun for her. Sometimes she’ll brush my hair while we watch a movie. To tell you the truth, half the time, I don’t even want to watch a movie, but if Butter’s going to brush my hair, I will. It’s funny how much more you relax and enjoy something if you know the other person doesn’t expect you to do anything. I mean, you’d never ask a boy to brush your hair, would you?
Hey, want to lose fifteen ugly pounds?
I’d love to!
Cut off your head.
• • •
You’d think by the way my eyes burn when we step outside that they’ve caught on fire. At the far end of our block a tour group of prospective students is disappearing around the corner, which is too bad because usually we flash them from the porch and scream, “This is not a party school!” Still, I can’t imagine the tour guide is much happier that they’re being followed by this burnout dog that lives at the fraternities, a perpetually stoned yellow Lab with Don’t Paint on Me painted on its side in safety orange.
I generally like it when Butter takes my arm. I’m not like Deb, who acts like this means she’s a lesbo. I don’t know, this morning it just bugs me. When we start to cross the street, I pretend to sneeze just so I can pull my arm away to cover my mouth.
Andy’s house is a white two-story, with a wide porch, and has one of those granny swings, which is where he is supposed to be, stretched out on the sofa in his madras shorts and white button-down, black loafers, porkpie hat, looking like a man from the fifties trapped in the eighties, playing the harmonica to Jimmy’s guitar. Even when he’s got his shades on, he closes his eyes when he plays. He’s shy, and without them you can read whatever he’s thinking in his big brown eyes. The time I can most imagine kissing him is when he has them on. He should never take them off.
Did you ever notice everybody throws their panties at the guitar player or the lead singer, but nobody ever throws their panties at the harmonica player? Why is that? Why didn’t any other girls want Andy?
There are about a dozen people on the porch—mostly seniors, though there are a few underclassmen. On the steps Jimmy is playing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” on his guitar, and Deb is out there in her long blue Lanz nightgown and duck boots pumping the keg, her jaw set like that of a pioneer girl working a butter churn. She’s big-boned and strong—she rowed crew in high school for god’s sake—but she’ll pretend to get tired, or sometimes ask a guy to do it for her, just to seem more girlie. She’s sensitive. You can barely hug her without her freaking out and jerking away and accusing you of feeling her baby back fat. That’s when she turns.
Deb couldn’t look happier to see me, which is never good. “Heeeere’s Bender,” she says, staring at the sunglasses. Knowing they’re Andy’s makes her insane. It’s not my fault he likes me and not her. “Well, hello, Betty,” she says. “And how are we feeling this morning? Looks like someone’s got a wicked case of the cocktail flu.”
“I’m just peachy,” I say. “You look well rested.”
The move for the pitcher of Bloody Marys on the porch railing is pure instinct, reflex. Tomatoes are packed with vitamins. Next, I’ll duck into the loo. Deb always hides a box of Munchkins in the bathroom, because she hates to eat in front of boys.
“Now, now,” Butter says jokingly. “Play nice, ladies.” The look on her face as she watches me pour myself a Bloody is increasingly pissy.
Oh, shove it. You’re not my goddamn mother, I think.
“I promise, Butter my love, just one.”
Butter sighs. “Half an hour,” she says, tapping her finger on the face of her watch for emphasis. Just kill me now, I think, watching her sit down beside our other housemate, Teddy.
Teddy grew up in Manhattan. For a while, her grandfather owned the Empire State Building. She was in rehab when she was seventeen, so she doesn’t drink. Instead, she rolls these skinny joints, which she smokes like cigarettes. Deb sometimes says, “What do you think this is, an opium den?”
I watch Butter bum a smoke, one of the robin’s egg blue cigarettes Teddy smokes. Ha. I swear it’s Butter’s second.
“So,” Deb bellows, circling me like a ringmaster about to call out, In the center ring . . . “What . . . the . . . fuck, Bender? Look at your face.” She gasps in mock horror. “What did you do? What did she do?”
“You should see the other guy . . . ,” Teddy says, in this laconic tone that matches her black kimono. She takes a drag on a joint, barely glancing up from the crossword, which she always does in pen.
“Aw, you look foxy as ever,” Jimmy says and winks at me—which is sweet—then starts strumming on his guitar and singing, “Wild thing, you make my heart sing . . . ”
I take the joint from Teddy.
“Oh my god, don’t encourage her,” Deb says and, pretending she is talking into a microphone, goes, “Tragedy strikes again as another coed falls prey to battered party girl syndrome. Film at eleven.”
“Ha, ha. You’re such a hoot,” I say. “A real comedian. You oughta take this show on the road, Deb. Really.”
Where the heck is Andy when I need him?
“Hey,” I say, leaning back on the porch railing, letting the pot smoke drift out my nose the way Teddy did, “did anybody call Charlotte?”
The question just lays there in front of us, like a body. I don’t know why I asked. I mean, I knew the answer already, but I asked it anyway. I knew what would happen. I couldn’t help it. There is a silence, big, wide, like someone has turned off all the sound—except there is music coming from the stereo in the living room. Teddy and Butter look like I’ve punched them in the stomach. Deb stands up. “I have to pee,” she says and leaves the porch.
“Sure, go pee,” I say. “Why not? Go.”
Jimmy doesn’t look up, but his face and neck turn red. “Andy has Spanish with her, I’m sure he told her. He would tell her. I mean, she knows anyway—it’s a tradition now.”
It is tradition, but Charlotte didn’t come last week, or the week before.
I knew the boys still loved Charlotte—that hadn’t changed—but none of them had any idea what to say to her anymore. I mean, they were boys. It wasn’t their fault or anything. But the thing that was their fault was they didn’t go up to that frat house and beat the living shit out of that guy the way they said they were going to. They should have done that. They said they would, but they didn’t.
Maybe if we hadn’t told them that someone had returned her shoes the next morning. Just left them outside the door of her apartment. Maybe finding out other people knew what had happened let them think they were off the hook.
Andy said the fraternity had a moral obligation to punish him. He said he was friends with the president of the house, and he’d talk to him. He’d tell him what his brother had done. He promised he’d do it. He’d make it right.
He had to know I’d ask. He might have just lied. I didn’t say I was disappointed when he told me he hadn’t found the right time yet. It was a private matter. That’s what he said, a private matter. I’d given him three days. Then I had to ask. I’d never seen anybody struck dumb with shame before. He stood there and flapped his hands, like what, he was a bird? A magician? What was he trying to make disappear?
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to. Because it’s nearly impossible to unknow something you know. Even if your brain forgets it, your body remembers.
All I knew was the guy was still at school.
I kept wondering, who brought her goddamn shoes back? And did he return them because he was a friend of hers and felt bad, or was he covering up for his brother—you know, getting rid of evidence she’d even been there. Been there and been so freaked out she’d run home without her shoes on. Or both? Was it possible that there could be someone who felt for both of them?
She was a virgin, you know. Not that it mattered, but it mattered.
• • •
After I say the thing about where is Charlotte, Butter says she thinks it is time to go, and I say I’m not ready to go yet. That I’m not even hungry yet; she says she is, and I suggest that she round up some of those yummy and nutritious celery sticks not being used to garnish to Blood Marys, or have some Cap’n Crunch. There are also donuts in the bathroom.
I wish Andy was here because whiny old Neil Young is singing our song, “Like a Hurricane.” It’s not like we officially said, “Oh this is our song,” it just is.
Then just as I am about to give up hope and go back to bed, I see Andy coming down the block. He has this slouchy walk, like he doesn’t want you to see how tall he is. He stops and picks up one of the neighbors’ trash cans that had fallen in the street. Who does that?
“You’re here!” I hug him so hard, I knock his hat off.
“Whoa, careful, little girl,” he says, catching it in midair, the way tap dancers do. I’m not sure, but I think he seems a little nervous.
“Where were you?”
Jimmy starts coughing.
“Nowhere,” he says, his face red. He shakes his bangs into his face, then pushes them back. “Lemme see,” he says, turning my chin to him, although I don’t think he can see a thing behind the shades. I hope Deb is watching this. I am glad Butter isn’t.
I follow him into the kitchen and sit on the counter watching him make toast with strawberry jam. He always cuts the bread on the diagonal. Why does everything taste better in a triangle?
“Oh no, it’s a Towering Toast Inferno. Save yourself,” I say, stealing a piece off the top. I’m waiting for him to say something like Wow, who knew you were such a card shark, we made a hundred bucks last night. You know, just a hint, when he goes, “So hey, Belinda, Cutty Sark tonight . . . ”
It takes me a second. I’d sort of halfway forgotten he’d even invited me, because he’d stopped just short of actually asking, “Will you be my date?” Because that would sound too serious, just too freaky.
“I can’t wait. It was the first thing on my mind when I woke up this morning.”
“Really? Great. That’s great. I was like, afraid with all that’s going on, you might forget.”
“Oh, come on. No way. I’m psyched.”
“I think it’ll be a good time. I mean it.”
“Always,” I say. “I’ll have a great time. When have I ever not? We not?”
We both laugh, sort of nervously. Out of habit I reach up to fool with my pearls, but they aren’t there, of course.
“I thought, maybe, you know, it would be fun beforehand . . . We could go out for dinner, before. Nothing, you know— Just eat real food for a change, nothing out of a can, or a box, no sauce you just add water to and stir. Wine.”
Andy smiles, his hand reflexively covering his mouth, because he’s self-conscious about how crooked his bottom teeth are. Because he was the youngest of six, there wasn’t money for braces. I wish he’d just smile normally. “I could swing by and pick you up—that would make the most sense, right?”
“Or, we could meet there,” I say.
He looks pained. “What?”
“No, it’s just . . . I was thinking I’d go check in on Charlotte, but I don’t have to—you know. Or”—I wait—“you could come with me?”
It had just come to me—it wasn’t a lie—I’d just forgotten I wanted to do that. I could swing by, just for a few minutes even. Say hi. It was a good plan.
He looks flustered, I knew he would be, he’d understand. It was the sort of thing he’d do if he could. I knew he’d never say yes.
“No, you, you should go alone. That’d be better. I know she’d like that—to see you. Whatever. I can meet you there.”
“Really? Only if you’re sure,” I say “She’s expecting me at six. So, give or take, I’ll be at the house at, what, seven?”
“Seven, seven thirty, whatever is cool. Party opens up at eleven.”
It’s always a bad idea to set an exact time to meet because you never know what might come up. But nothing is going to come up. Nothing could come up.
Then I have this brilliant idea. “Why don’t you let me pierce your ear? You need an earring. You’re supposed to be a pirate, right? It’s about authenticity.”
He laughs, like he thinks I am kidding around, but even so he reaches up and covers his ears. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not? It’ll be fun,” I say. “Live a little.”
“Forget it. No way. I’m not going to become another one of your victims.”
“You’re not scared, are you? If you don’t like it, you know, you can always take it out.” I reach up and push the hair back away from his ear, and my fingers brush his neck. “I’ve done it a million times. So many times—do you know how many guys I’ve done, for Cutty Sark even—”
His fingers find his earlobe, like he’s considering it. Why not?
Then for some reason, I don’t know, I suddenly don’t want to do it, don’t want him to say yes.
“How can you call them victims? They come to me. I don’t go looking for them.”
Toby had heard I did ears, and I was good. He’d shown up at my door sophomore year with a six-pack, as payment. He was so cute I’d have done it for free, but he didn’t have an earring with him. Anyway, I had this tiny silver and turquoise stud I’d gotten at a gift shop at the Grand Canyon; I hadn’t worn it since I was like ten. I numbed his ear—two ice cubes for just a couple minutes. It wasn’t nearly as good when it was frozen like steak.
Maybe it was the way the metal post looked as I started to push it against his earlobe, the way he winced when it went in, the pop of the piercing, the way the end came through the other side, but it was such a high. For a second, I couldn’t even breathe. You know that saying Better than sex? It was way better. Way better than sex.
“So, I’ve just got to go into town real fast,” Andy says. “I’ll be back.”
I suspect he’d gotten me a corsage.
“Come back, soon?”
“Will do,” he says and tips his hat—that slays me.
I don’t know how tired I am until I lay down on the sofa. It smells funny, like dog. I wonder how much pot that painted dog has had blown into his face over the years. How many tabs of acid have been dropped in his water bowl? How old was he anyway?
On the TV, Mighty Mouse is snorting the pollen out of a magic flower for energy. That is what I need if I am going to make it. Does anyone have any blow? Maybe Josh. Ha, that is funny.
Using the last of my strength, I reach over the arm of the sofa and drag some ugly gold blanket that looks like a curtain over me. It is a curtain, but who cares. It is brocade. Nobody seems to notice I’m not around. Which is fine. Damage is getting done, I think. It feels peaceful, and safe, on the sofa, under the curtain, falling asleep in front of the TV just like I did at home. I touch my eye, it hurts. I touch it again, it still hurts. One time, though, I know I’ll touch it and it won’t hurt as much, and I’ll know it is getting better and soon I’ll even forget it ever happened.
• • •
It hadn’t been my idea to go to the farm bar last week. It was Deb’s. She said we deserved it. It was one thirty in the morning and we’d been studying all night. I just didn’t feel like going, but how would it look if Bender said no? No, it’s a school night and my stomach hurts; no, I have a paper due on famous poisoners throughout history; and you know what, no, I don’t feel like it because I keep thinking about what happened to Charlotte last week at that beach party.
Even if I’d said no, no one would have believed I was serious.
I didn’t used to feel this way, but unless you’re blotto, the best part of going to the farm is being able to say, I went to the farm bar last night. People look at you differently. It’s sure not the sort of place you go on a date. It doesn’t open until 3:00, and depending on how wasted you are it takes an hour or more to get there. There’s no jukebox, no music at all, just a black-and-white TV behind the bar, and a radio set on the Weather Channel or the station that plays Bible sermons. No reason to go there except that it’s the only place open at four in the morning that serves booze. No Johnnie Walker Black or Famous Grouse, just their poor relations Jack Daniel’s and Rebel Yell.
The only bad thing was the floor. It had a rotten, sweet-sour smell like they’d never wiped up anything that spilled, just let it sink into the wood. The floor felt weirdly spongy when you walked on it. Otherwise, it was a perfect bar.
It was the middle of the goddamn night, so of course we were in our pajamas—but Deb called, nobody changes, not that anybody wanted to anyway. On the weekends we always go out in our nightgowns, into town for brunch, shopping. Our nightgowns, with the lace and the neck and wrists, were nicer than the dresses half the women in the state wore, and with pearls, we looked ready for church. My pearls were passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me. I was only supposed to wear them on special occasions, but because none of the girls at my school ever took theirs off, I didn’t either.
Even though Charlotte wasn’t feeling so social, it would have been weird for us not to invite her. We couldn’t not ask her; if she found out it would hurt her feelings. And she wouldn’t have to drive either like she usually did. Deb was going to drive. For once, Charlotte could get as hammered as she wanted—if she wanted. She could sit in the back with Butter and me. The thing is we all assumed someone else had called her. Nobody said a word when we drove past her house. It wasn’t until we were literally there that we figured it out.
Deb said it was my job to call Charlotte. One simple job, she said. Butter didn’t call because she said Charlotte had no business going out to bars. Teddy didn’t bother because even if Charlotte were awake, she wouldn’t answer the phone. Not only that a late-night phone call could set off a panic attack. Deb was driving. That left just me. They could pretend to be mad at me, but none of us wanted her to come.
A piece of string walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve string.” So the string leaves, then comes back and again asks for a beer. The bartender says, “I told you we don’t serve string.” So the string leaves. Out in the alley the string rubs its body against the brick wall, then walks back into the bar and asks for a beer. And the bartender says, “Hey, weren’t you the string that was just in here trying to order a beer?” And the string says, “No. I’m a frayed knot.”
I couldn’t even see the farm bar until we were almost on top of it because the black cinder blocks blend into the dark and there are no windows. It’s like if you didn’t know the bar was there, you’d never see it. But if you needed it, you’d spot it low down, sort of hunkering in the weeds.
The sky was that weird grayish color that tricks you into thinking dawn is right around the corner, but it’s not. It’s the time when all the animals that hunt at night, like owls and foxes, start crawling, or flying, or whatever—creeping back to their holes. You know, Last call for field mice! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t eat ’em here!
It wasn’t a time you’d think of people being awake, and drinking, but the parking lot was jammed with rusty cars and hay wagons and tractors, pickup trucks with gun racks. I always wonder when a guy tells me I have a nice rack if that’s like a gun rack, like deadly—or a rack of antlers, like a trophy you’d hang on the wall over your fireplace. Either way it’s a compliment.
“You know this county has the highest incest rate in the entire country?” Deb said.
“Ah.” Teddy sighed, making a frame with her fingers as she squinted at the bar. “I do adore early American bomb shelter architecture, don’t you? When the big blast comes, the only survivors will be drunken farmhands and cockroaches.”
The echo of our laughter bouncing back at us, across the fields, was a little creepy, like there was another set of us out there in the dark and we were throwing our laughter back and forth. Playing catch. Which made us laugh harder, and longer.
“You go first, Bender,” Deb said, stopping right in front of the door to the bar. She rubbed my shoulders. She was practically daring me, so of course I opened it. It was heavier than you’d think. Like a test. If you can’t open the door with one hand, you aren’t man enough to get in. I’m stronger than I look.
When we walked into that bar in our gowns and matching pearls, the way those farmers turned and looked at us, we must have seemed like something out of a movie. A fantasy.
Men sat lumped shoulder to shoulder at the bar, or crowded around the tables. In their blue jeans and overalls, plaid work shirts and baseball caps, you could hardly tell the farmers apart, their faces as blank as cattle. Staring down into their beers, like the meaning of life was at the bottom. Even the ones in the safety orange caps and hunting vests only stood out because of the color.
As usual, I got elected to get the drinks. I didn’t mind. I was the best one to go anyway. I mean, Butter looked like a toy in her sailor suit jammies and Deb was a chicken, and Teddy smoked blue cigarettes, for god’s sake. Like my coach said, Bender’s not afraid to throw the trick. It was a little weird to be there and not be wasted. Up at the bar there was a bowl of hardboiled eggs. I wondered what my grandfather and dad would say if they saw me now, out here rubbing shoulders with the common man. There were probably some dairy farmers here.
I’d practically thrown my shoulder out trying to wave down the damn bartender when this guy in a red shirt and mustache sat down next to me with a cup of coffee.
“Well, hey there,” he said, pushing his John Deere cap back. Maybe this was some form of tipping your hat. Maybe he’d take pity on me and wave down the bartender. “What’s your name?” he said in that voice grown-ups use on children who insist on formally introducing them to their stuffed animals.
“Belinda,” I said, without thinking. I never tell anybody I meet in a bar my real name, or give him my real number. A girl needs to protect herself.
Maybe I forgot because he was a grown-up and I was raised to be polite to grown-ups and have good manners. Maybe I forgot because I’d never seen a man with brown hair but a red mustache, or a person who could smile with just his mouth and not his eyes.
He asked me, “Where you from, Belinda? Not around here.”
“You’re spot-on. I’m from England,” I said in a British accent so thick you could roll me up in it like a rug. “London, actually.” I could talk to anybody with this accent.
“London, huh. Never been,” he said, picking up a hardboiled egg and rolling it between his hands. “Been to Asia, though—you ever been to Asia, Belinda?”
He tapped the egg against his teeth until it cracked, then started peeling it and dropping the bits on the floor. Without its shell the egg looked wet and shiny in his hand. I swear it was the whitest thing I’ve ever seen.
“You’re pretty far from home, aren’t you?”
“Quite right. I’m at university in Wallingford.”
He slipped the egg into his mouth whole. You could hear little bits of the shell crunching between his teeth.
Just kill me now, I thought.
“Yeah, I thought maybe. What’re you doing here?” Then he said, “You sleepwalking?” Shaking me by the shoulder like he was trying to wake me up, and I realized, Oh my god. I’m not wearing a bra. I should’ve worn a bra. What was I thinking? I didn’t think. I never think.
“Hey there, jumpy, jumpy,” he said, massaging my shoulder. “Little jumpy.” I tried to move away, but he had a hold on me. Calm down, I told myself. At least you have underwear on, right? Could he tell I didn’t have a bra on? Sure he could. That’s why he picked me.
Then he said, “That’s a nice necklace you’ve got on there, Belinda,” hooking his pinkie under my pearls. I told myself, Be a good sport, Belinda. Then he gave it a tug, pulling me closer. Tug. Worse things happen at sea. Tug.
I told him to be careful.
“Be careful,” he said, tugging on my pearls. Then he said, “I know why you’re here.” I realized he was looking at the hickey under my chin. He let go. I can do anything for ten minutes.
Then he said, “I know your type. You like it a little rough, Belinda, huh? Or,” he said, a grin cracking across his face, “did you try to get smart with somebody, bad girl?”
He put his arm around me, his hand moving slow as a spider over my shoulder, down my collarbone, hanging there over my tits, then like by accident he touched my nipple, then again not by accident at all.
The sound came out by accident. It wasn’t that loud either, but Deb and Butter must’ve heard because they froze like rabbits. The bartender heard it too, and came walking over to us. He’d make the asshole apologize to me. Give us drinks on the house. And that’s when I’d kiss him. At the very least I’d kiss him.
The bartender stopped in front of us. He folded up his rag and put it down on the counter. Now, I thought. Now you’re going to get what you deserve, motherfucker, I thought, in front of all these people.
“Thank you,” I said to the bartender in my regular voice. I wanted him to know I was like him.
“Look at you,” the bartender said, disgusted. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. What are you thinking coming in here like this?” It wasn’t until he said, “It’s indecent,” that I knew he was talking to me.
“We just wanted a cocktail,” I said, wanting to explain. “A nightcap.” A pair of white-haired old men playing checkers, shots of whiskey set beside their cups of coffee, stared at me.
“I think it’s time you and your girlfriends left. Now.”
All those men in their baseball caps and overalls, their old Carhartt jackets and windbreakers with FORD or CHEVY on the pocket—all of them, brothers, fathers, grandfathers—they were looking at me with nothing but contempt. I thought, Couldn’t I be one of your daughters?
Deb and Butter were waiting for me at the door. As we were leaving Deb pulled open the door, turned to face the room, and said loudly, “Fucking hicks.”
And then we ran for it. I was halfway across the parking lot before I felt the first pearls spill down inside my nightgown, across my stomach, and out under the hem. I tried to grab the broken string but couldn’t; the pearls were shooting through my fingers, bouncing and rolling across the parking lot, under cars and trucks, leaving a trail.
Ahead of me Butter and Deb, holding hands, bolted toward the car. “Bender, come on!” Deb screamed. Butter saw what happened and dared to slow down. “Your pearls, your pearls,” she yelled, reaching down and grabbing at the gravel.
“Just go,” I yelled, “it doesn’t matter.”
I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop and get down on my knees and rescue as many of my pearls as possible, but I couldn’t. Why did I even have them on? They were the best things I had.
We jumped in the car. Deb gunned the engine, and we took off like a rocket, gravel shooting out from under our tires. Deb cranked up the radio—and music came blaring out of the speakers. “Woo-hoo!” she screamed, pumping her fist.
Butter, who’d jumped in the front, reached back between the seats and said, “Hold out your hand.” And then she handed me a pearl. “I’m sorry it’s only one, ducks,” she said, like it was breaking her heart.
In the rearview mirror you could see the cloud of dust we’d raised still hanging there. I should have been happy, right? But I didn’t even want the pearl. It would just remind me that I’d lost the rest.
“Thanks,” I said, wondering if I should maybe just drop it out the car window. Maybe some farm kid walking down the street would find it and think, Wow, look at this. And then they’d think that maybe the world wasn’t as ugly as they thought it was. Maybe there was magic in it, after all.
• • •
When I wake up it’s one o’clock in the afternoon, the Wake and Bake is over, and I’m in Andy’s bed. Not on top, but under the sheets, tucked in, under an afghan you know somebody made him, still wearing his sunglasses. Being in my nightgown, like that, like I’d put it on last night to get into bed with him—I don’t know, it wigs me out. And did I crawl into his bed—just snuggled right in—or had he put me in it?
Balanced on top of his bookcase are some artsy-looking black-and-white photographs of trees. There is a guitar in the corner, and a pile of library books. I didn’t even know he had a guitar.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” Andy says. He is sitting at his desk like he’s been studying, but I don’t think he has been. “I was getting worried about you. You were dreaming.”
“How did I get up here?”
“I carried you, of course. You fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV.” He doesn’t say passed out. He says fell asleep. This is why I loved him.
I could see a life with Andy, a fun, wonderful life. The two of us traveling around the world, me speaking French, him speaking Spanish, cocktailing in all the most fashionable bars, me getting drunk and dancing on tables, and him carrying me out in his arms, my high-heeled shoes dangling from his fingers.
My angel, he’d say, looking down at me.
My hero, I’d say, looking up at him.
Strangers would look at us and think how glamorous we were. They’d look at us and think, There is a perfect couple.
He says, “Deb was threatening to give you a mustache. You know, so you’d look like a pirate—for Cutty Sark.”
“What a sweetheart. She worries about my inability to accessorize.” I sit up in bed. “Did Charlotte ever show up?”
“Don’t know but I’ve been up here studying for Econ. I haven’t seen her.” He looks embarrassed.
“I need to call her.” I keep forgetting. “How did I get up here?”
“I carried you. You fell asleep on the sofa.”
“No, no, no. What is going to become of me?” I groan. Without thinking I touch my eye. It still hurts.
He blushes. “It’s my pleasure. I’m sure you’d look real cute with a mustache too, but . . . ”
“No, really, Andy. What would I do without you?”
He picks up an autographed baseball he is using as a paperweight off his desk. Downstairs someone put Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps back on; everyone was singing along to “Hey Hey, My My.”
“When I was a kid, my friends and I used to sing, Hey, hey, my, my, none of us will never die. Isn’t that stupid?” I say. Actually, no one but me had sung that.
“Not stupid,” Andy said. “Just immature, you were a kid. I can see the point. I like your way better too.” Sometimes he seems so much older than me.
“Me too,” I say, thinking, I could wake up every day in this bed. That’d be good, wouldn’t it? “What would I ever do without you?” I tell him. “I’d be lost.”
Andy gets up from his desk like something is about to happen, but then he just walks over and looks out the window. “I guess when school is over, this is all over too?” he says in a faraway voice. “We’ll go to different cities, get jobs . . . ”
“Don’t say that,” I say. “What about Paris? I want to go to Paris.”
“City of lights, city of love,” he says. “You’d do great there. You could be an actress, or something else creative.”
“I think I would.” Why not Paris?
“You would too,” I say. He’d get used to it.
He sort of laughs, and comes over to sit on the edge of the bed. Then without warning he reaches over and starts to take his sunglasses off my face. “Let me see,” he says. “Up close. Someone should look at it.”
I curl up into a ball. “No, no, no. Trust me. You don’t want to.”
“They’re mine, aren’t they?”
He knows they are. I wouldn’t lie and say they were some other guy’s. So, I let him do it. He studies my eye, like it’s a problem he’s pretty sure he can fix. He very gently examines the swelling, the bruising on my eyebrow, without ever looking into my eye.
“Don’t worry, you can’t hurt me.”
When he pulls down my lid with his thumb, I automatically shut the other one. I feel his breath, then the pressure of his lips against my eyelid.
He stays like that for just a second, then sits up. When he does, he has the look, his eyes sort of dreamy and half closed; he is staring at my mouth, he is tilting his head—
His sheets are tucked in so tight around me. I can feel the stubble on my legs.
“Hey, Belinda,” he says leaning in and I panic. I turn my head and yawn, like I have no idea he was about to really kiss me, but he knows and I know. It’s impossible to un-know something. The way he recovers by pretending he’s reaching past me, across the bed to adjust the afghan. I hate myself. Just kill me now, I think.
“Okay, so, yeah, since the patient seems to be resting comfortably, I’m going to go and grab a cold one,” he says heading for the door. “You stay here. I’ll be right back. Can I get you anything?” His voice has like ice in it.
“Surprise me.” In a minute I’ll be gone.
Before I leave I pull the covers so you’d never even know I’d been there.
There’s this other Neil Young song that should be on my funeral playlist, but I can’t have two and I can never remember the title anyway, but the line that always gets stuck in my head is: And once you’re gone you can’t come back. When you’re out of the blue and into the black . . . It’s like the saddest song in the world. You can’t stand it.
• • •
Back home I chug the last half of a bottle of NyQuil and climb into my turned-down bed. When I wake up it is dark, and Butter, Deb, and Teddy are all gone. There is a note from Butter on the floor by my bed.
Charlotte’s gone. Her parents came and got her.
I have to read it a couple of times. Then I get up and start digging through my drawers, pulling books off my shelves. Frankenstein, The Bell Jar, Now We Are Six, but goddamnit—I got nada. I have this thing where I like to hide drugs from myself. That way when I find them it’s like this nice surprise. I’m happy. Finding a snow seal of cocaine is better than Christmas. On the plane ride home at Easter, I had one of those Bic pens in my mouth, and suddenly my tongue went numb. I guess I’d taken it apart so I could do lines in the library bathroom during midterms. That was sweet.
Only I can’t find anything, nothing except for two NoDoz, which I chop up on my dresser with my school ID and halfheartedly try to snort. But it’s real sticky, so mostly, I have to jam it up there with my finger. Hey, if you got ’em, snort ’em.
It occurs to me that I could call Andy—Charlotte is gone—and we could go to his party together, but then it seems like more trouble than it’s worth.
My next imaginary boyfriend is going to be named Tex, he’s going to have a gold tooth and a motorcycle and carry lots of cash.
In the hall I check my wench costume—the low-cut blousy white shirt pulled off the shoulder, a tight red-and-black skirt that laces up the back—in the full-length mirror, admiring the great job I’ve done masking my black eye with foundation and lots of liner (I only look a little bit like a battered wife), and then—hope springs eternal—I lift the mirror off the wall, lay it on the floor, and on my hands and knees lick around the edges.
• • •
I arrive at the party at 8:00. I’ve had two beers and hope that Andy has had twice that many. The NoDoz has done nothing but make me jittery. Even though I’m fashionably late, nothing seems to be happening yet. The lights are bright, and the music isn’t loud enough, and everybody looks about thirteen. All I can see are these dorky little sailor boys and Captain Hooks, paired up with their perky wenches, all of them drinking punch. I feel like I’m spying on Peter Pan’s bar mitzvah. I can’t be sure Andy’s even there.
Across the street, I spy that stupid painted dog from town, staggering back up the hill toward the fraternities. The Don’t Paint on Me is wearing off. Now it says, Don’t Pain on Me. That’s pretty funny. I whistle for it to come, but it ignores me. No one else even notices this dog, or cares. That bloody dog slept with guys who fed it mushrooms, and laughed when it peed on itself. And it couldn’t stop for me? Here I was feeling all sad for it, and maybe it liked being painted on.
Down the street on the lawn outside of his fraternity is Josh, along with the rest of the rugby team in their black-and-yellow striped jerseys, like a bunch of bees, hovering around the keg. I know what I need to do. One last time, just say good-bye. Make it official.
I go in through the back. Downstairs, the hall smells of dirty shorts, spilled beer, hash, and peanut butter. It makes me sort of sad to think that after college I’ll never smell this boy-smell again. I sit down at Josh’s desk and stick one of his paper clips in my pocket.
Then I’m up in his loft bed. When he comes in and locks the door, I am pulling off my blouse.
“I have a girlfriend. A serious girlfriend.”
“You can’t keep coming here like this.”
“Like this? When was the last time I was here?” I say, trying to sound lighthearted, and teasing, but I want to know. I wait for him to say something, anything. Just one clue about whether I’d been with him last night.
“You’ve got to go,” he says. I can hear his resolve slipping away. After all, we have a thing. I know he wants me.
“This is the last time—” I say.
“Uh-huh,” he says, turning off the lights so it is totally dark except for the ones on the stereo, and they don’t look like stars, just bright yellow holes.
He climbs up into the loft and pulls off his shirt and shorts. He smells like sweat and beer. He turns me over, lays me facedown, stretches my arms and legs into an X, lifts my butt, and pushes in. “You’re going to take this?” he says, his voice shaking, going farther. He collapses behind me. He doesn’t lie beside me and fall asleep. Nothing normal.
I don’t get a chance to ask him if he has any coke.
Then groggily he says, “I gotta go. Don’t fall asleep.” He runs his hand over my head, not unkindly, like I am a doll.
I wake up with a start, the party in full thunder over my head, and unable to breathe. It is almost midnight. Outside I take off like I’m running for my life and I will press charges against whoever is chasing me. I would. I would do it.
The fraternity house looks like it is on fire inside. All the lights are on, blazing. Two guys in bandannas, striped shirts, and raggedy cut-up pants are up on the wall outside the house, beers in hand, waving plastic swords and screaming, “Shiver me timbers!” Fun. The front hall is just a mass of people. Smoky and hot. As soon as I walk through the door I’m swallowed up, sucked into the center, spun around, squeezed, and then forced out the back door. Someone hands me a cup of rum punch and I pound it. I can’t stop shaking, my arms and legs all loose in their sockets. I don’t see Andy anywhere. Not on the dance floor, or by the bar in the other room. I need a minute to think. Maybe he just didn’t feel like dancing since I wasn’t there. That would be like him, not to dance with another girl even though his date hadn’t shown up yet. How could I have made him wait? Made him worry. I hear someone say I’ve just missed seeing a guy who had tried to throw an empty keg off the back porch sail over the wall still holding on to it, and fall two stories. He’d gotten up, perfectly fine. I take this as a sign that this is a lucky night.
I hope Andy is drunk. Maybe he won’t know what time it is. Maybe he’s been drowning his sorrows, afraid I wasn’t going to show up. I ask a guy I think is his little brother if he’s seen him. “Last I saw he was serving punch,” he says.
Thinking of Andy standing there alone by the punch, sober, a ladle in his hand, bandanna on his head, and a plastic eye patch, serving people, breaks my heart. Is is possible that he just left? He’s mad at me, no, worse, worse, disappointed. Maybe he is at home watching TV in the dark and finishing off the keg. I’d do another circuit, ask around, then I’d call. No. I’d just run to his house. I’d surprise him. I’d show up with something—some ice cream, some wine, a twelve-pack. We’d get a little wasted and I’d let him kiss me, and I’d like it. A few more and one thing would lead another, and I’d want him. I know I could do it.
That would make everything all right, wouldn’t it? I wondered what he thought I would be like. He must have wondered.
I am on my way out, pushing my way through the crowd, when I feel it. An idiot girl, not even in costume, has doused me with punch. My hand flies to my throat. No pearls.
I stand there dripping wet, my white shirt soaked red, stuck to my skin and stained beyond repair.
“Oops,” she giggles, and covers her mouth, which seems to be all gum. “Ouchy, you have a black eye.” Another time I’d have returned the favor, and thrown my drink back at her, but I don’t. Don’t let her know you felt it, I say to myself. I’m not supposed to be alone. I am supposed to be with Andy. I am his date. They should all know that. I’m not alone. Are that girl and her friend laughing at me? See, Andy . . . what did we tell you? I’m sure I heard my name. I don’t recognize any of them.
I don’t know where the voice comes from, but I hear it clear as day. “Andy’s gone. He left.”
I have to push people away to keep moving, saying to myself. Keep going. You’re doing great. You can do anything for ten minutes. Just get outside. But there are people on the lawn too; I can’t tell where the party starts and where it ends.
I’m going to run home. I’m going to run to Andy. I’m going to as soon as I catch my breath. I notice someone has left a full beer on the wall behind me. A gift. I sit down and lean against the wall.
But what if Andy didn’t go home? Had he gone after Charlotte’s guy? What if I went home and he wasn’t there? Then, there I’d be, all alone. He might be looking for me. I should just wait. He had to come back.
And when Andy comes back, he is going to say, “I’m sorry I left.”
And I am going to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter now. We found each other.”
And he’ll say, “You’re right.”
And I’ll kiss him and say, “I guess it’s destiny.”
And he’ll say, “I always knew it was.”
And we’ll both be thinking—I don’t ever want to forget how happy I am right now.
So, I wait and I wait. Once, I see a shadow of a boy that looks like Andy, walks like Andy, coming up the hill but that boy’s holding someone’s hand, so it can’t be him. When the real Andy finally shows up it’s almost dawn.
“It’s done,” Andy says staring at his shoes, his mouth looks pink and puffy. He doesn’t have to tell me. I already knew. I know.
I say, “Better late than never.”
I want to tell Andy that Charlotte’s already gone home, but what’s the point? I pick my cuticle till it bleeds. Andy looks up, studies the empty sky hard, like he’s afraid it’s going to storm.
I say, “Here is a good one. A cat and a dog are sitting next to each other on a plane . . . ”
He gives me a tired smile. I know he has low expectations.
“However, it is a short flight and they do not talk to each other.”
He says, “Is that supposed to be funny?”
“No,” I say. “It’s sad.”
Meet the Author
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and cofounder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
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I'm not sure that the girls in Building Blueprints for Better Girls are necessarily better for their experiences, but they are intensely familiar, as if I had studied their blueprints. As you read, it's hard not to think, Oh, I know her. It's not that a character reminds you of someone you already know, but that they are rendered with such consistent attention to personal identity that you feel you should know them. You expect to run into them on the sidewalk. The book elevates self-examination to art form. The characters never dwell in melodrama, they never spout grand philosophies. The real revelations, the real tragedies, aren't in the big moments; they exist in the smallest actions, especially interactions, of the characters. The grand events are the kinds of things that carry their own weight with them. There's not much a writer can add, and Schappell wisely uses these life milestones as the framework for her stories, not as the driving force behind them. The result is often small, ordinary scenes that branch out into the larger world through memory, and with this device each scene moves beyond its apparent simplicity. It reminds us of the great complexity of mere existence. To read this book is to enter the characters' heads, not just knowing their thoughts, but understanding, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree, their psychology. And, like most good books do, it makes you reevaluate your own.
These interconnected short stories are so powerful they invaded my dreams. Shappell has written a heart-breakingly honest series of short stories capturing so much of what it can mean to be a teenager, young woman, wife and mother in the modern world. I often find I only like a couple of stories in short story collections, but w/ this book every story is solid - a book I look forward to rereading again, and soon. Impressive, literary, and moving. Would be a great book to read & discuss w/ friends.
It felt like each story could have been it's own book. The stories had great draws but then they ended abruptly. I felt a little cheated. There were maybe two stories that had some closure. I felt like the book could have emphasized the connection between the women a little more. As a reader you had to be very deligent to pick up on the connections.
Well written. Wonderful boook
Fantastic book - really great read - I couldnt put it down.
Great book with great charaters. Tha stories are very real and you feel like you are sitting with them in your livingroom.
A real page turner
I was really looking forward to reading this but couldn't quite latch on to it. The collection of short stories has some pretty sad undertones with interesting morals at the end of each one that left me feeling less and less excited to read the next one...
Just so so. I was indifferent on most of the stories.