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Searching for Intruders: A Novel in Stories

Searching for Intruders: A Novel in Stories

by Stephen Raleigh Byler, Kate Nichols (Designed by)

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Stephen Raleigh Byler unveils in eleven stories the evolving self-awareness of Wilson Hues, a hapless drifter in rural Pennsylvania who finds himself, in strange moments of illumination, obsessed with the consequences of his own action and inaction.

Hues gets caught in the throes of a male-dominated and sometimes violent home life and subculture. His dark


Stephen Raleigh Byler unveils in eleven stories the evolving self-awareness of Wilson Hues, a hapless drifter in rural Pennsylvania who finds himself, in strange moments of illumination, obsessed with the consequences of his own action and inaction.

Hues gets caught in the throes of a male-dominated and sometimes violent home life and subculture. His dark memories — rendered in vignettes between stories that serve as a backdrop for his everyday life — intrude upon his relationships with both men and women in such a way as to remind him of his own tenderness and weakness.

Evocative and exuberant, visceral and reflective, Searching for Intruders is a celebration of life in all of its beauty and pain.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Every once in a while, a book comes along that's truly unclassifiable: sad but funny; segmented but cohesive; dispassionate but very, very personal. If it doesn't work, it's called "experimental." If it does, it's termed "fresh," "original," and even "transforming," -- all adjectives that apply to Stephen Raleigh Byler's astounding debut novel, Searching for Intruders.

Subtitled A Novel in Stories, Byler's book encompasses a series of moments in the life of the fictional character Wilson Hues, recounted in chapters of varying lengths. The shortest chapters are vivid snapshots revealing a childhood overshadowed by an abusive father. The longer ones follow Hues in his adult life, as he moves through jobs, homes, and relationships, trying to forge connections. The stories are amazing for the way they combine the tragic with the humorous, and the everyday with the timeless.

In one chapter entitled "Roaches," we learn of Hues's floundering attempts to rid his New York City apartment of the hated pests at the same time that he is trying to halt his wife's growing dissatisfaction with their marriage. The description of the roaches, crawling on the kitchen floor in numbers so great that the floor itself appears to be moving, is classic; the simultaneous frustration building up in Hues's wife, and his inability to cope with it, is heartbreaking. In the character of Wilson Hues, Stephen Byler offers us a wonderfully approachable and sympathetic hero, one so real you'll want to put your arms around him and give him a great big hug. (Winter 2002 Selection)

Dwight Garner
In Searching for Intruders, Stephen Raleigh Byler borrows so adroitly from both Carver and Ford that his stories sound terrific right from the start.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Resilience, empathy and a dark sense of humor sustain the well-intentioned perennial loser whose flat but curiously captivating voice guides us through the linked narratives that make up Byler's impressive debut. A walking wounded spawn of Reading, Pa., 34-year-old Wilson Hues vainly battles roaches, blunders into domestic disputes he can neither control nor understand, gets a divorce, takes up a terminally ill lover ("Pollute me, please"), loses her, too, and finally flees the country altogether, seeking affirmation (or maybe just plain solace) through yet another doomed relationship (this time with a diseased animal). Wilson's monotonous litany of woe is interspersed with increasingly disturbing flashbacks to his family's tortuous disintegration, his father's horrific death after a plane crash and finally the brutal double murder of a friend's parents. It is appropriate that Wilson becomes fascinated with Stephen Hawking's descriptions of the matter/antimatter collisions that make up the universe: he himself is one of those stubborn particles whose repeated collisions refuse to yield any sort of universal resolution. Byler's novel-in-installments winds down with a bleak metaphor for Wilson's alienation and his perennially self-defeating search for love: he briefly adopts a stray dog in a South American country with a federal culling policy. In disciplined and straightforward prose, Byler creates a dystopic vision of roadside America, full of the doomed and damned, perfect January reading. (Jan.) Forecast: This promising first novel is supported by a five-city author tour and a 15-city NPR campaign, and should provide Byler with a firm base on which to build his career. Copyright 2001Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Byler's first novel is a series of linked stories narrated by Wilson Hues, a Holden Caulfield type in his mid-30s who works minimum-wage jobs and drifts aimlessly from place to place. Hues has seen his share of tragedy, including his father's grisly death following a plane crash, the brutal murder of his best friend's parents, and his girlfriend's struggle with cancer. Those pivotal events, however, occur offstage and are referred to only in passing. Instead, Hues obsesses about countless personal failures, starting with his inability to control the roach population in his first Manhattan apartment. Then there is the time that he wrecked his car in a dispute over a boat rental fee or the Christmas he destroyed a burn victim's favorite model airplane. Initially, Byler's bare-bones prose recalls the masculine toughness of Hemingway, but, as details accumulate, it becomes clear that the book is actually a cunning critique of macho conventions. Byler nearly overplays his hand in the sentimental conclusion, but otherwise this is an impressive debut that will appeal to fans of Thom Jones and Denis Johnson. Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An interrelated series of close-hewn, stark, and sensitive first-person tales set in Reading, Pennsylvania, New York City, and the West. In two parts of five and six segments, respectively, Wilson Hues, a restless young man without a fixed residence, companion, or life's purpose, grapples with ordinary but potentially perilous hurdles on his journey into manhood: the breakup of his early conflicted marriage, the death by burning accident of his abusive father, the later death of a girlfriend from cancer. Each "story" is prefaced by a short, painful, and unlovely reference to Wilson's childhood or youth, such as "The night my father moved away he fought his oldest son," or "My friend Travis's parents had been stabbed." These straightforward short pieces, titled and sometimes only a paragraph long, create an accumulative gravitas that sets the tone for the longer tales and alerts the reader to Wilson's state of emotional susceptibility. In "Roaches," the first and most powerful story, Wilson and his wife Melody, a rape counselor, watch their marriage disintegrate while there's also an invasion of roaches into their Manhattan apartment. A woman whom Wilson has invited up to the infested apartment hints at the horror she witnesses there-and at the narrator's morbid creepiness. Indeed, as Wilson, in the later "Beauty Queen," describes his early college courtship of Melody, it isn't entirely clear whether he has helped redeem her or has caused her eventual self-mutilation. Wilson himself confirms our suspicions of his shaky ambivalence in the chilling eponymous tale, in which he and girlfriend Alethea, her cancer in remission, prowl around their Reading home at night after hearingnoises: "I realized that she understood me to be what she had been fearing." A strong debut from a writer who can whittle experiences to the quick. Author tour

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Harper Perennial
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Searching for Intruders

A Novel in Stories

by Stephen Raleigh Byler


Regularly, my father told my mother she was fat. If one of us didn't take a piece of fish when the plate was passed, my father's spoon would crack like a hammer on our heads. The diet was for my mother mostly, but for all of us, he said. Once when the spoon fell on me, the youngest son, my mother tried to intervene, but he dragged her from the table by her hair.

Beauty Queen

My ex-wife was a beauty queen.

Her first crown came at age thirteen. The Dairy Princess. I saw the picture shortly after we started dating. It was a Polaroid. She was standing on a parade float, waving to the Reading, Pennsylvania, hometown crowd with that fake but convincing smile that came so naturally for her. There were live Holstein cows with swollen, milk-filled udders chained up on both sides of her.

Her prize for that contest was a $25 savings bond and the right to keep the skimpy dress they made her wear for the parade. She had no breasts at that age, but the Dairy Princess judges were intent on having her show what little she had. A subliminal milk thing, I suppose. The dress was a halter top that exposed what would have been her cleavage if she had been old enough. It sucked in at her tiny waist so it fit snug around her hips and then it fluffed out again below her ass. It was hemmed a good two or three inchesabove her knees to expose plenty of leg. It was white for purity, virginity, and dairy products.

There was a gaudy, glass-jewel crown, too, but she didn't get the honor of keeping it. (Apparently that was too valuable to replace from year to year.) It was hard to see in the picture, but Melody -- even her name was perfect for pageants -- remembered it in perfect detail. It had white and blue stones all around the outside with a glass Holstein cow in the front as a kind of centerpiece. There was a cluster of pink cubic zirconia stones for an udder and -- this was the unbelievable thing -- tiny red stones for nipples. "You can almost see the little teets," I remember her saying the first time she showed me the picture.

I don't think she ever lost the sort of juvenile beauty she had in that Dairy Princess Polaroid. Even in adulthood, she had the same long, slender, delicious arms. And her breasts never really grew that large. They were shapely, mind you, above her stomach, which was always amazingly flat, and they were a fine accent to her small, tight, suitably ovular buttocks, but they weren't huge in the conventional sense. Her legs were long and thin and perfect. That's what she was, after all, perfect. She wasn't the quintessential voluptuous measurements. She was long and lean. Long and lean and angular. Even her gorgeous face was angular. High cheekbones, thin lips, a sharp, aggressive grin...

There was a series of other achievements, too. At age sixteen she became the Poultry Queen. That one was very similar to the dairy contest: a skimpy dress, a crown, a parade, live animals. There was a little talent part to it, too -- a superficial effort to legitimize the whole affair. It was a slightly bigger deal, I suppose. The contestants were older -- late adolescence -- so there was also a swimsuit part to the judging. The only other difference was that there were chickens chained next to her on the parade float -- chickens instead of Holstein cows.

Some of her honors were less overt. They were social honors instead of actual contests. When she was in eighth grade, the captain of the varsity soccer team asked her out on a date, and in ninth grade the hunky quarterback of the football team courted her. The hard thing about those situations for her girlfriends, she told me, was that the guys were more than just athletic and handsome, they were smart, even stylish. There were junior and senior girls who wanted to scratch her eyes out just because the boys were attracted to her. It wasn't Melody's fault. She couldn't help that she was beautiful.

Things like that went on happening, again not because she ran over people, but because things just came to her. In her junior year, she was voted Homecoming Queen as a write-in on the ballot. It wasn't supposed to be allowed, but after she won she went in and discussed the matter with the balding, potbellied principal -- "flirted with him a tad," she admitted -- and he decided to make an exception because of "her diligence in her studies" and "her pleasant, positive attitude." She was a "model student" and he was "thrilled" to have her represent Ridgemont at the homecoming parade. "Model. Thrilled," she said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head the first time she told me that story.

On top of all this, Melody was an exceptional athlete. And the truly amazing thing was, even that came easily for her. I remember after one of her college track meets she said to me, "All I have to do is run fast like when I played kick the can or prisoner's base as a kid." It didn't require meticulous training or mental effort for her like it did for, say, me in tennis. It always intrigued me: the same long, slender legs that won her beauty contests won her state medals in the fifty- and one-hundred-yard dashes. She could pump her legs like pistons and she still looked like she was gliding when she ran.

Watching her run, in fact, is how I fell in love with her. I played on the college tennis team and the courts were up on the hill next to the track. After my grueling, disciplined workouts I would walk down and sit on the hill and watch her work out with the team. It looked almost as if she was floating when she ran, gliding or floating, yet moving along the surface of the land. Sometimes I would carry my racquets all the way to the bottom of the hill, right next to the track, and watch her up close where I could study the muscles in her calves and the backs of her thighs. After each sprint she would walk slowly back to the starting line, her muscles flexing and bulging wonderfully with each step. Her calves especially -- they'd bounce into a taut, flexed position as she pushed off with the ball of her foot. You could see that they were hard, but they bounced, almost like fat, even though they definitely weren't fat. No, they certainly weren't fat. They were tight, pure muscle. That was obvious enough.

When she walked between sprints, she'd swing her arms at her sides in a kind of a swagger. She would slump her shoulders and walk leaning back, a little duck-footed, breathing heavily, with her mouth open. It didn't matter that she walked with poor posture, it only made her sexier somehow. It only meant that she was that comfortable with her body. I'd stare and imagine the heat of her blood pumping. Her high cheekbones, her firm jaw, and the sweat on her upper lip...they all gave her beauty a delicate masculinity. She looked so alive and so confident. Jesus, she was ravishing.

Things didn't come as easily for me as they did for her, and in a certain sense I found it strange, her attraction to me. I worked very hard at the things I did. My tennis, for instance, wasn't anything like running for Melody. I played because it was the kind of sport in which I could make up for my mediocre athletic ability with grit. I could spend hundreds of hours practicing the ball toss for the serve until I got it just right. I could hit thousands of backhands trying to perfect my shoulder turn and my weight transfer. I could use my mind to beat guys who, frankly, had the kind of natural athletic ability that Melody had. If I played a big serve-and-volleyer, I'd frustrate him by hitting soft slices at his feet and then lobbing over him. If I played a big-hitting baseliner, I'd bait him into going for too much by hitting high, loopy balls without a lot of pace, deep into the court.

I was in decent shape, but I wasn't nearly as good looking as she was, that's for certain. My nose was too big -- it still is -- and I was kind of gangly, almost skinny. I had had pretty bad acne in high school and I was still on the tail end of that. I definitely wasn't one of the hunky quarterbacks or soccer stars she was used to dating.

But school did come fairly easily for me, and looking back on everything, I'm certain that must have had something to do with why she was attracted to me. I wasn't an exceptional student, don't get me wrong, but I could converse about a lot of things and sound, to her at least, as if I knew what I was talking about. I could make her laugh, too. That must have been a big part of it. I didn't see it then, but I realize now that she saw me as a kind of a bridge between her body and her mind. A way for her to grow, a way for her to pass from the physical to the cerebral. All her life she had been affirmed for her body. Even when she was a child -- the dresses she got as presents, the adolescent beauty contests, people pinching her cheeks and raving about what a cutie she was. I came along at a time when she was trying to break out of all that. It wasn't that I was that smart or that athletic, but that's just it, it was the combination. I was the bridge, the liaison, the mind-to-body guru.

I remember the first time we chatted in the library.

"Do you believe that stuff?" I said.

She was studying a developmental psychology text and I went down on one knee next to her table. Her face flushed and then she recomposed.

"Well, it is my major," she said.


"Yes, psychology," she said.

I should have been put off, but I was willing to risk my personal dignity.

"I've been doing sociology," I said.

"Doing it?" she said, raising her eyebrows.

"I'm thinking about majoring," I said.

There was an awkward pause and then she said, "Did you want something?"

I wanted to say, "Yes, you," but I was just smart enough at that age to refrain from that kind of thing. I didn't really have a good reason for approaching her except that I was attracted to her physically. I thought on my feet. She was in one of my classes.

"Do you have the Western Civ assignment for tomorrow?" I said.

She reached in her purse and pulled out a thin black book that said Academic Planner across the top. That impressed me because I never organized my own studying. She opened it and pointed to the name of the text and the page numbers which she had neatly written in the square for that day.

"Thanks. Thank you very much," I said, leaving.

But I wasn't going to give up that easily. Ours was a small college and there were opportunities for me to pontificate, if not directly to her, at least in her presence. My last name was Hues and hers was Henderson so we ended up in the same weekly discussion group for our Western Civilization class. One day in one of those discussions I made what was really a fairly unimpressive, unoriginal comment about how I didn't think it was right that we studied the Greeks -- as if they were right about everything -- and ignored the Eastern cultural arts and philosophies.

"What does everyone think about Will's comment?" the graduate student discussion leader said.

Maybe it sounded profound for a college freshman, I don't know. In any case, it impressed Melody. I saw her forehead wrinkle up and I saw her put her hand on her chin. I caught her staring at me two or three more times before the end of class. That was all I needed (God knows you don't need much at that age). That night I went looking for her in the library.

"What did you think of the discussion today?" I said, going down on one knee again.

She closed her psychology text and slid it to the upper right corner of the study carrel.

"It was interesting," she said.

"Psych again?" I said, pointing to the textbook she had closed.

Her forehead wrinkled up like it had in class.

"So did you think of that...comment...or did you read it?"

"Oh...in class?" I could feel the sweat cranking up in my armpits. "Some of both, I guess," I said.

I went on and bullshitted about something we had covered in Intro to Sociology. Basic nature/nurture questions. I argued for nurture, which impressed her. She had been lapping up the stuff in her psychology courses uncritically.

"Take the case of children, female children, being given dollies to play with while boys are given balls, tractors, or toy guns. Little girls are taught to be soft. They're taught to like dollies, while boys are taught to play with tractors and guns."

Again, not especially novel ideas, but they impressed her. She nodded and smiled. She thought it was cute that I called them "dollies."

"Psychologists tend to assume the innateness of girls' affinity for dolls. Sociologists, on the other hand, ask questions like, 'Who taught them to like dollies? What are the large-scale social consequences of teaching boys to be competitive or rugged while teaching girls to look pretty, to nurture things?'"

She nodded and rubbed her forehead again.

"I mean, are you all sugar and spice?"

She smiled and her lower jaw came out like it did when she was walking up the track after a sprint. "Hardly," she said.

"And I'm not all snakes and snails," I said, smiling at her. "Like, what are we saying to little girls when we give them Barbies?"

The corner of her mouth twitched and she slouched in her chair. It made me think of her sexy, poor-postured, post-sprint swagger. She put her hands behind her head and looked straight into mine with her fabulous green eyes.

"This is more interesting than my reading," she said. "Do you want to get some pancakes?"

My college tennis coach -- Coach Phooder, he insisted we call him -- complained about things like skim milk, "fags," and vegetarians. He drank soda constantly, ate lots of candy bars, and ate multiple plates of fried French toast sticks at the Shoney's brunch bar where he took us for pregame meals.

The afternoon after his wife gave birth to their third child, he showed up late for tennis practice. We had already scattered out on the courts and started playing, but he called us in, gathered us around, and told us to congratulate him. "My wife just had my third child. A boy this time, finally," he said. He had been up all night, and after the successful delivery, he had gone to Harry's Diner and eaten their Mother Load. He smiled when he said Mother Load and then he told us what the dish consisted of -- ham, eggs, bacon, sausage, scrapple, and pancakes. He looked at his fingernails which, I remember thinking, probably still had amniotic fluid underneath them. "I got the eggs sunny-side, extra-runny," he said. The team smiled and laughed. I did, too, probably. But then he said something I'll never forget. He got a very serious look on his face. His pudgy cheeks sucked in, he pursed his lips, and his head receded into his shoulders, adding another roll to his already multiple chins.

"You know," he said, looking pensively off over our heads, "they had to do a cesarean section in the end." I thought he was going to say something tender, something about how helping his wife deliver their child had affected him. He shook his head like he was in pain. "So I gave the doctor a twenty, told him to sew her up a little tighter for me."

When I met Melody I wasn't a virgin. Unfortunately for both of us, that wasn't the case with her.

I had had sex myself with only one person, the summer before. For some reason I hadn't done it with anyone in high school which, I think, was unusual for someone my age. I'd had a couple of girlfriends, and I had fooled around a little, but for a number of reasons, I hadn't wanted to sleep with them. For one, there was a lot going on at home. My father had been cheating on my mother for years. My two older brothers were angry adolescents -- angry at the adult world, which, they thought, was comprised of all hypocrites. They did drugs, listened to Kiss, and treated my mother violently (so had my father before my parents separated). My brothers also, as a kind of further symbol of their defiance, had sex with their girlfriends in my mother's basement. But my mother was very good to me and I sided with her on almost everything. It seemed -- my brothers' basement sex -- almost like an actual part of their violence toward her. I heard them often and it disgusted me.

My father moved out when I was twelve, but there was one instance before he left, but after all of us knew he was cheating on her, when I walked in on my parents having sex. He was on top of her, pumping away. Maybe it would have felt okay in a different context, but he was already cheating on her and there she was letting him fuck her. And, of course, he had been beating up on her for years, so why hadn't she stopped screwing him years before? That's what it was to me, fucking and screwing. It wasn't making love, that's for certain.

In junior high, my summer Bible camp counselor had told us that sex out of wedlock was sinful and that if you did it, you would reap what you sowed. I was groping for things to believe in around that time, and given what was going on at home, it sounded convincing to me. The camp preacher talked about saving yourself for your mate and for a while I thought I would do it. But when I began to realize how much of what I learned at summer Bible camp was ridiculous -- like that the world was four thousand years old -- I rethought the sex issue. At some point, I decided I just wanted to see what the big deal was. I had sex with Marianne Connely in her parents' bed one weekend when they were away. Marianne had done it before and she made me feel very comfortable even though I didn't know what I was doing. Probably partly because we were doing it for, among others, the simple reason that we liked each other, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn't feel dirty afterwards. It wasn't the big deal that the camp preacher had said it would be. My penis didn't fall off. We both enjoyed it. We did it eight times in three days.

Still, I had waited a long time to have sex -- much longer than most guys my age -- and I was very sensitive to the idea of someone being cautious or afraid. I could empathize with someone idealizing it. I could respect someone saving themselves or thinking they were protecting themselves emotionally by choosing to wait until they found the right one.

It didn't add up at first, Mel's being a virgin. Of all people, you'd think that a beauty queen would, with all the pressure and opportunities, lose her virginity before college. If I'd have guessed on our first or second date, I'd have said she'd had sex at age fourteen in the back of one of her high school quarterback boyfriend's Chevrolets. But that wasn't Mel. She wasn't unaffectionate or prudish, not at all, she just took her body -- its beauty, health, and sanctity -- very seriously. She wasn't unsexual, not by any means. She masturbated daily, and she talked openly to me about her desire for pleasure. She would take my hand and show me where to touch her, even use it to touch herself. She'd have multiple orgasms, three or four in a session. She'd go down on me and she had, I found out later, done the same for her high school boyfriends. She'd just never had intercourse.

You must understand that I tried very hard to be very sensitive to her physically. I never pushed her. I waited for her to give me the signal.

On the way home from one of our away matches, Coach Phooder liked to think of little games for the team to play. This one came to him while he and Luis Lopez were going through the names of the women on the field hockey team, asking everyone "would you," and then counting yes or no votes. Phooder presented the idea for the new game in the same way he told the joke about sewing up his wife after she had had their baby. He quieted the van and got everyone's undivided attention.

"Okay, guys, I want you guys to come to a consensus." He spoke in the same deep, authoritative voice he used when he told us to run sprints. "The five most fuckable." You could tell he was very pleased with himself. It was a breakthrough idea for him. Sudden illumination. "Give me the list when you're through," he said.

In the early stages of the exercise, there was considerable discussion about whether fuckability could also involve personality and intelligence. I had been trying to ignore everything, pretending to listen to my Walkman, but I couldn't help myself. I slipped off my headphones and said something that I thought, at the time, was a kind of courageous championing of women's issues.

"It should involve more than just looks," I said.

It was the first time that I was participating actively in any of their would you, fuckability games, and it felt in that moment as if everyone was scrutinizing me. The van went quiet except for the hum of the tires on the highway, and everyone turned around and stared at me.

Coach Phooder broke the silence.

"Looks. This is just looks," he called from the driver's seat.

I don't think he intended it as a joke, but everyone laughed. His voice was deep and commanding again and it set the tone for the debates in the next twenty minutes. The just looks dictum seemed to amplify the degree to which women were discussed like pieces of meat. There were extensive arguments over the shape of hips, size of breasts, tightness and contour of asses. Luis Lopez offered, in numerous cases, what he claimed was experiential knowledge.

"I'll bet she smells," Nathan Georgalis said of Amy Cornelius.

"Oh, she does, let me tell you," Luis Lopez announced, raising his eyebrows.

The group was working toward a consensus for each ranking like Coach Phooder had insisted, but often when it seemed that one of the spots was just about to be set, a dissenter would protest and put the issue back on the floor.

"Her ass is too big," Mark Wellesley said of Melissa Lichty.

"Ah, Melissa Lick-me," Bobby Witmer added, slouching in his seat and spreading his legs.

When the discussion started to stray into directionless banter and argument, Luis Lopez brought it into focus again.

"Look, it's only the four spot we're talking about," he said.

"No fuck, give it to Lick-me," Bobby chimed.

"All right, guys, Melissa Lick-me's spot for the four spot." He pounded a tennis racquet like a mallet on the seat in front of him. "All in favor? All opposed?" He counted the hands. "Miss Lick-me it is. Her spot takes the four spot," he said, pounding his racquet again.

There had been a brainstorm at the beginning, a calling out of women who were in the pool, and Melody's name had received the most emphatic moans and hoots. The five and four positions were filled and Charity Newhouse was about to fill the third ranking. I felt a constriction in my throat, like my esophagus was narrowing. The thought of them violating her verbally infuriated me. I didn't want to hear Luis Lopez say something about Mel's snatch, and I was afraid I'd explode if Coach Phooder said anything vulgar about her at all. The last thing I wanted was a sexual image of Phooder and Melody in my head. I was also fearing my own humiliation. I knew that everyone knew I was dating Melody. I was afraid they'd put me on the spot somehow, force me to either participate or defend her, insist that I talk about our sexual relationship.

Charity Newhouse, or Free Charity, as Bobby Witmer called her, was declared the third position. That left Rebecca Slaybaugh and Melody.

"Rebecca Slaybaugh, number two," Nathan Georgalis announced.

"Más despacio," Luis Lopez said. "How about some discussion? I mean, this is the number one most fuckable we're talking about. Let's put it back on the floor. Pros and cons? Becky Slay-all or Melody Henderson?"

"Slaybaugh has the tits for it," Georgalis said.

Coach Phooder smiled and shook his head. "Oh, yes, she is filthy," he said, which meant she was attractive, apparently.

"Oh, she's a tramp," Ricky Richards said.

"A fucking whore," Lopez said, sighing. "Fuckablicious," he said. He looked upset with desire, almost disturbed.

"Rebecca Slay-all," Witmer said.

"If tits could kill," Georgalis added, pleased with the course of things.

Luis liked to see everyone participate in the discussion, so he invited Jeremy Johnson, who had been nearly as silent as me, to speak. "And what about you, Mr. Johnson? Every man has an opinion on pussy."

"I yield to the gentleman from Oregon. Rebecca Slay-all is my vote," Jeremy said.

It seemed like everyone was about to settle on her for number one, even Luis Lopez, and then Coach Phooder interfered.

"Wait a minute. Slaybaugh is a little chunky, isn't she?" he said.

I glared at Phooder, thinking about how fat he was himself. Every other week he talked about going on some kind of diet, but he never did it. He took a bite of a Milky Way he had just opened and washed it down with a swig of Mountain Dew.

"I mean, I know you guys are young and all, but it's not all about tits."

There was an awkward silence while everyone considered Phooder's comments carefully, and then Luis Lopez, sensing the group's need for leadership, took charge again.

"He's right, Coach is right," Luis said. "We need to consider this carefully. Let's talk about Mel Henderson's ass. Bonito ass. Culito bonito," he said.

Luis was fluent in Spanish, and while I'm not sure that it worked, he liked to try to use his Spanish and his knowledge of wine -- his grandparents owned a small winery in Chile -- to charm women. The Latino Love Machine, he had dubbed himself one day in practice, partly joking, but mostly serious. When attractive women walked by the courts, he made a kind of a hissing sound. He made that sound at this moment.

"Tssss, tsssss. Mell-o-deee Heeend-eer-son, fucky fucky," he said, exaggerating his Spanish accent.

Everyone laughed except Nathan Georgalis. He was pretending to be genuinely hurt by the suggestion that he was overemphasizing Rebecca Slaybaugh's chest.

"You need something to grab on to," he protested.

"Bueno, but they don't have to be tits," Luis said.

"Look, Mel Henderson has no chest. Nothing," he said. "I mean, what will the baby eat? You can't carry milk in those things."

I thought about Mel in the low-cut, white Dairy Princess dress.

"Who said anything about kids?" Luis said.

I saw Coach Phooder reach up and adjust the mirror so he could see me again. He tilted back his head to get the proper angle and said, "Why don't you guys ask Hues? He's been fucking her, hasn't he?" he said.

I was in the seat in the very back of the van. Everyone turned around and peered at me.

"That true, Hues?" Luis said. He was smiling. Everyone was, actually. "She let you fuck her yet?" he said.

I tried to think of something to say, but I couldn't, I just stared back at them. I could feel my face flushing.

"I bet she's a screamer," Coach Phooder said.

I felt a surge of angry energy move up the back of my neck and out into my arms.

"I bet she bled the first time you fucked her. I'll bet I could make her bleed," Phooder said.

I wanted to shout an insult at him, something random and unrelated, like how ugly and disgusting the mole on his nose was, or how many bags of potato chips he averaged during Monday Night Football. I wanted to punch him in the mouth and watch his fat face bleed.

"How about it, Hues? What's your vote?" Luis said. "Tits or ass? Slaybaugh's bouncing balls or culito bonito, your skank's tight little ass?"

I looked up at Coach Phooder in the front of the van and caught a glimpse of his round face in the rearview. He was gnawing on his Milky Way again.

"Ass," I said. I kept watching Phooder in the mirror. He put his candy bar down, smirked, and took another sip of his soda. "My vote is ass. For Melody," I said.

That night when we got back from the tennis match there was a note from Mel on my dorm room door. It said, "Waiting for you. Roommate gone for the weekend." I showered and dressed in the pair of old jeans that I knew she liked on me. Even though I usually wore T-shirts, I put on a nice, soft, long-sleeved, collared oxford that I thought she'd appreciate.

When I got to her dorm room and knocked, she said calmly, seductively, "It's open, come in."

She was under the covers with her shirt off. She didn't even sit up in bed when I entered. There was a candle burning on her desk -- no other light in the room. It was making shadows on the wall opposite the bed. She hadn't been sleeping, it was clear, but she didn't sit up to greet me. She just rolled over on her side in a sort of fetal position, with her elbows in front of her breasts and her hands curled up on the pillow, under her chin.

"I've been waiting for you," she said.

I realized how typically masculine it was to be attracted to her softness, but I couldn't help myself. She looked so soft and beautiful to me at that moment. She loved soft, silky things, and the comforter she was cuddled up in was down, cream-colored, and the highest thread count available. It looked so good over her breasts, against the milky, pale skin on her shoulders and neck. Randomly, I pictured Luis Lopez looking at me, saying, "Tits or ass?" It made me suddenly furious, but there was nothing I could do about it, it was just there in my head. I tried to block it out and lay down next to her with my shoes and clothes on. I touched her cheek with my fingertips.

"You look beautiful," I said.

She just stared at my eyes blankly and I was afraid for a moment I had said something wrong, that I should have said something about who she was instead of how she looked. I felt another surge of anger at Coach Phooder and Luis Lopez and I decided it was their fault that her physical beauty was the first thing on my tongue.

"Did you miss me?" she said.

"I was thinking about you the whole trip."

"Me too," she said.

She touched my face with her gentle hand and she lifted up my shirt and touched her fingertips to my belly. She ran her hand up onto my chest and neck and then back down my hip. It felt tingly, shivery, wonderful.

"Do you like that?"

"I do," I said.

"Take your pants off," she said.

I kicked my shoes off and they fell, one at a time, with intrusive thuds, onto the floor. They were loud, obnoxious sounds and they made me feel like we weren't alone, as if people were eavesdropping on us.

"Your roommate's gone?"

"Long gone," she said.

"Should I lock the door?"

"If it makes you more comfortable, she said.

I got up and locked it and then, with my back turned, took my pants off. I was wearing a pair of boxer shorts that she had bought for me. I left those on and took my long-sleeved shirt off. I left on my white undershirt and crawled in next to her, under the comforter. She cupped both hands on my cheeks and stared at me so intensely that it looked almost as if she was angry. She kissed me and I felt her hips pressing into mine.

"Oh, God," I said.

"What?" she said.

She held the back of my head with one hand as she kissed my neck and chest.

"You," I said, arching my back.

"Is there something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong," I said.

Then she said, somewhat suddenly, "Wilson, will you touch me?" It wasn't unusual for her to ask me like that, but it surprised me this time for some reason -- I think because I was still thinking about the van conversation. I tried as hard as I could not to, but I couldn't help but think of her request in these terms: that I was in bed with the number one most fuckable and that she was asking me to touch her.

She rolled onto her back and I reached down between her legs. She was naked. I was going to lick my fingers, but she was already lubricated. It only took three or four minutes for her to climax, and after she came once, she held my hand there so I'd keep touching her. In the next five minutes, with me just touching her, she had two smaller orgasms. After the last one, she put both her hands on my cheeks and stared at me. Her eyes were moist and she gazed at me with her mouth slightly open.

"Sometimes I wonder what it's like to feel you," she said.

My hand was still between her legs.

"To feel me?"

"To feel you inside of me."

I thought I understood, but I wasn't sure.

"You mean my fingers?"

"No, you, Wilson."

I put my arms around her and snuggled my face up under her chin.

"I mean you, inside of me."

I caressed her face and hair and I rested my head on her chest. I sighed. I felt both wonderful and miserable.

"Don't you want to?" she asked.

If I was going to say something, this was the time. This was the time for me to tell her I wasn't a virgin.

"I do want to," I said.

"Are you scared?"

"A little, I guess."

She rubbed my head maternally. "Ah, of course you are, she said."

We didn't have sex then, but looking back on it now, I think it was that moment that I value as much as any in our entire relationship. I just lay there with my head on her breasts. I could feel her chest rise and fall underneath my head and I could hear her heart beating. I felt the vibration of both thumps as it pumped blood in the one side of her heart and out the other. I thought about the blood gurgling through her arteries, racing out her veins, into her capillaries, and then spreading out into her cells. It felt so pure between us. We weren't having sex, but it was still as if our bodies were actually sharing fluid, sharing blood, passing oxygen and nourishment back and forth to each other. It was as if the blood her heart was pumping, the oxygen contained in it, spread out through her capillaries to the surface of her skin and jumped over onto mine, into me. It felt as though nothing I could say could taint our closeness. But of course that feeling -- the feeling that nothing can come between you and another human being -- is a deceit, and now I realize that's what it is. It's like a lie you tell yourself. It's like believing in God because of your need to believe, instead of because God actually exists.

"Wilson, can I ask you a question?" she said.

"Sure," I told her.

"You've never had sex before, have you?" she asked.

The way she phrased the question, it seemed like I had no choice but to give the right answer, the answer she wanted. It came out before I knew what had happened.

"No," I said, ridiculously.

I panicked, started plotting how I was going to explain my spontaneous lie, my "no" answer. I planned to tell her the truth, later.

"Are you sure nothing's wrong?" she said.

"Yes, I'm sure," I said.

This was exactly one week after she told me she wanted to sleep with me. It was a Friday again. We didn't have a tennis match on this weekend, which was unusual, and it was probably partly for the reason that Coach Phooder was bored that he had to drum up something different for us to do in practice.

There was room for one tennis court in the school gymnasium and occasionally, when it rained, we went inside and practiced on it. There was a temporary indoor net we set up. The court wasn't ideal because the surface was very fast, much faster than the normal hard courts we played all of our matches on. For that reason the indoor practices were usually informal. If it rained and we had to go into the gym, we'd just practice our serves or do something casual. But this was beyond casual.

"We're going inside," Phooder announced, halfway through our outdoor practice.

It wasn't raining and no one could figure out why we were going in, but Phooder wasn't the kind of coach who appreciated questions or criticism. Nobody protested.

When we got in, he told us to set up the net. Luis and I did it without asking questions. He said, "Georgalis and Witmer, shut all the doors. Make sure they're latched, and locked." There was an echo in the gym and Phooder's deep, military like voice resounded. The bleachers were all stacked up to the wall. It hadn't rained in a number of weeks so no one had been in to use the gym. The floor was all dusty.

When all of the doors were locked, he called us to the net and said, "Guys, we're going to work on pressure tennis today. Pressure tennis." He smirked and swung his arms behind his back like he was stretching them. His chest and belly protruded. "Postseason is coming up. We can't have anybody choking."

It was tense and quiet. Outside, the sun was shining.

"Today we'll be playing strip tennis," he said.

Everybody smiled and laughed nervously, as if he was joking, but he wasn't joking. Not at all. He was serious.

"Whoever ends up naked first runs a suicide...with everybody watching. One article of clothing per lost point," he said.

If he had been completely authoritative, he couldn't have pulled it off, but he said it with a little smirk on his face -- in the same way he had ordered the "five most fuckable" game. Phooder commanded authority, but he could also successfully work this one-of-the-guys attitude. That can be dangerous for a coach. I've been on teams where that collapsed into a situation in which the players could look right at the coach and say, "Fuck off, Coach, we're not doing sprints today," but Phooder combined his chummy attitude with an excessively masculine, confident air. He was able to get us to do things most coaches couldn't have.

"Let's go, four on a side. Line it up," he said.

There was some giggling and grumbling as we divided up on opposite sides of the court, but everybody was doing it.

"Ay, Dios mío," Luis Lopez mumbled as we set up on the baseline. "Fucking coach is loco," he said, smiling.

Actually, almost everyone was smiling, only because they didn't know what else to do. There was no way to protest. If you did, you set yourself up for major abuse. I could just hear it. Why didn't you want to play? What was the big deal? Were you ashamed of your body? Were you a fag or something?

The way it worked was, Phooder fed a ball to one of the players to start the point. The thing about that was that if it was an easy feed, the player he hit the first ball to could gain an advantage right away before the rally even began. Sometimes, depending on who was up, he'd make the feed so easy they could approach the net on the first shot. It wasn't fair. Phooder was affecting the outcome. And starting the point with a groundstroke instead of a serve hurt me. My serve was the best part of my game. Phooder knew that.

Every time you lost a point you had to take off an article of clothing. Even that rule left some with an unfair advantage. Some guys happened to have worn a lot of accessories, like wristbands, hats, and headbands, but I didn't wear all that stuff. I just had my shorts, a T-shirt, my shoes, and my socks. Also, Phooder invented some of the rules as we played and in that way he influenced who had to get naked. He let some guys count things you wouldn't normally think of as clothes, things like watches and necklaces. He even let Bobby Witmer count his ankle wrap. He actually let him take off individual strips of tape and count each strip as a piece of clothing.

I'm certain that Phooder wanted to see me humiliated. He could sense my discomfort with his adolescent jokes, his fuckability games, and he saw it as a threat to his authority. It was as if he knew the game would take me apart, that I'd be more likely to collapse mentally than anyone else on the team. He wanted to see me squirm, among other things.

I was one of the best players, the number two seed, and I was usually very strong mentally, but in this situation I tightened up horribly. It's a term in tennis, tightening up. Your muscles need to be loose and limber to hit the ball with any power or accuracy. It's not like football or some sport where you can just flex your muscles and grit your teeth and have it help you. It's about levers and fluidity. You actually have to relax physically. That mental aspect was actually what attracted me to tennis, but in strip tennis my mental game collapsed. It was like I knew before we even started that I'd lose. I remembered how I ended up feeling naked at the end of all the sex jokes, so I thought I'd probably be the one to get screwed and run the suicide with no clothes on. I kept thinking, "I'm going to choke, I'm going to lose."

Everyone got into it. What else was there to do? They all hooted and hollered and laughed while the points were being played. If someone hit a great shot with half their clothes off, it was a much greater accomplishment even than hitting a winner in a real collegiate match. This was real pressure.

Luis Lopez and I were the first ones to get down to just our underwear. He had come to practice without a shirt, which he often did so that he could show off his chest to the women on the way to the courts. On this day, it had backfired on him.

"Okay, crunch time," Phooder said. He looked very pleased. He usually tried to play it cool when he told a joke himself or when he thought something was funny, but he was grinning like I never saw him grin. "The Latin Love Machine versus..." He paused and scratched his chin while he thought of a nickname for me. "The Latin Love Machine versus...the Nuke," he said.

I don't know quite what he meant by it, but it wasn't a compliment. I was skinny back then and, as I said, my nose was a little too large. My hair was frizzy and big.

"Mi Dios, el Nuke," Luis said, buckling over.

The whole team started trying it out, saying it to themselves, listening to the sound of it. They all liked it, to say the least, and before long they were chanting it in unison.

"Nuke, Nuke, Nuke," they chanted.

One time Coach fed Luis a ball, but he put his hand up and buckled over laughing. The ball went right by him, but Phooder didn't count it. When the Love Machine finally composed himself again, Phooder gave him an easy feed, just like you'd expect, and Lopez drove me deep into the corner and approached the net on the first shot. I was on the defensive right away. It hurt my heels running on my bare feet and I couldn't move quickly enough to make an offensive play. I hit a slice at his feet and he handled it, putting me on the run to the other corner. I got to it, but I had to throw up a lob. It was too short. He pounded it away for a winner.

I won't go into it too much except to say that I did it. I took off my underwear and ran the sprint with my balls dangling. I was chilly and my penis was shriveled up and small. Everyone tried to slap my ass with their racquets each time I came back to the baseline and a bunch of times they got me with the frame instead of the strings. As you can imagine, it didn't feel good and I didn't find it humorous like everyone else in the gym. I knew I was kind of thin and funny looking with my clothes off, but I didn't realize it was that obvious.

"Nuke, Nuke, Nuke," they shouted.

That night Melody showed up at my room with a condom in her hand. She clasped her hands around the back of my neck, pecked me on the lips, and said, "I'm ready. I want to make love to you."

Coach Phooder had let us out of practice right after everyone finished watching me run the suicide. I had dressed and gone straight to my dorm without talking to anyone. I skipped dinner because I didn't want to see or talk to anybody. The team always ended up sitting together in the cafeteria, and there was no way I was going to face that. If my own mother had called, I don't think I would have talked to her. Mel was the only person in the world who could have reached me, and here she was with a condom in her hand.

She hugged me and I hugged her back. We stood there in a prolonged embrace and when she started running her hands over me sensually -- up and down my hips and around in front on my chest -- it struck something inside of me.

"Oh, Wilson," she said.

There is something that happens to me that I've come to identify and understand somewhat since that time. It's this strange thing where, when something happens where I feel rejected or traumatized, there's a kind of firing inside of me. That's how I'd describe it: a firing. This was one of the first times I remember it happening. I was feeling freakish, rejected, alone from the Nuke incident. That triggered things.

It's quite odd when you think about it. Here I was with the woman who had been voted, in Phooder's words, number one most fuckable, and I was feeling skinny, bony, freakish, like a Nuke, I suppose, whatever that is. There was something about all the things that had been happening with the team in combination with the memories -- disturbing and violent memories from my early life, many of them -- that set me off when she started touching me sexually. I started sobbing.

"Make love to me," she said.

It was all very untimely because obviously she thought I was crying because I loved her and because I was about to have sex for the first time. I did love her and I did want to have sex, but it wasn't going to be my first time. And I have to admit that at that moment I was crying for myself because of what had happened in the gym and because of the memories, not for Melody and me.

You have to consider how unusual it was for someone her age, with her appearance, to still be a virgin. She had told me a number of times that she was saving herself. Perhaps because she was never valued in other ways, her sexuality, her virginity, became something she was very protective of. It was more than just sex she was offering me. For some reason she trusted me. She wanted to give herself to me.

She unbuttoned my shirt and ran her hands all over my belly and chest. She unzipped my pants and led me over to my mattress, which I kept on the floor. We were kissing and breathing heavily and she kept saying, "Make love to me, please, Wilson." Of course I should have stopped it then. I should have told her I wasn't a virgin. But I didn't. Instead, I did what she was asking. I made love to her.

I've tried to convince myself since then that it was beautiful, but it wasn't. Not at all. She told me to come on top, which made me feel almost like I was violating her. While I was on top of her, making love to her, I heard in my head the pathetic sound of the team cheering me on. They were chanting, but this time they weren't making fun of me. They were rooting for me. "Nuke, Nuke, Nuke," they were saying. I couldn't help it, they were just there in my head. I felt grotesque.

I could see it was hurting her. Obviously she didn't enjoy it at all. She bled all over the sheets of my dorm room bed, and you can guess what that made me think of. Phooder chewing on his Milky Way making his filthy comment, "I'll bet I can make her bleed."

After we had sex, we lay there holding each other without speaking. She had started crying, but she calmed down in my arms. I was feeling all kinds of things. Pain and fear from the memories. Love for Melody. Anger at Coach Phooder and Luis. Guilt for not telling Mel. Guilt for making her bleed.

"I'm not a virgin," I said to her.

I don't know why I thought it was suddenly the time to tell her. What I do know is that I was very confused.

"Neither am I...anymore," she said, smiling shyly.

"I mean before, I wasn't," I said.

I felt her body go rigid and I felt her hold her breath in. Her heartbeat accelerated and the skin on her chest, underneath my cheek and ear, started to warm.

She sat up and pulled the sheets up over her breasts and stared at the wall.

"Get out, now, please," she said calmly.

Her voice was trembling and she was about to start crying. We were in my dorm room, of course, but I didn't argue with her.

"Get out, please," she said.

The way I saw it, I needed to give her space. I had no choice but to leave my own room. I put on my boxer shorts and went down the hall to the shared bathroom for my floor. It was a men's dorm and, like nearly every men's bathroom I've seen, it was filthy and disgusting. I walked to the sink and turned the spigot on. There was a thin film of tiny black specks in the washbasin -- someone's whiskers -- so I turned it off again and moved to another one. There were a few long blond hairs on that one, so I moved again. The one on the end was the cleanest. I rinsed my hands with hot water and then I turned the water cold, cupped my hands, and splashed water on my face. The door opened and Luis Lopez came in. He lived in my wing.

"Nuke," he said, without smiling.

He was wearing only boxer shorts, silk paisley ones.

"Nice job," he said.

I wondered if he had heard Mel and me.

He stared at me until I acknowledged him and then he smirked and tipped his chin. "For a while I thought it was going to be me getting naked." He stared at me, expressionless. "Fucking Phooder is nuts," he said.

He got his toothbrush and toothpaste from the little wooden shelves next to the door and set up in front of the same sink I had gone to first, the one with the whisker residue.

"I fucking hate this." He shook his head, took a step back, and gestured with his toothbrush at the basin. "Fucking pigs. Why are men such pigs?" he said.

He shifted to the sink with the long blond hairs. They didn't seem to bother him. He started brushing his teeth.

"How's your girlfriend?"

I stared at him while he brushed. White paste leaked out the side of his mouth.

"Didn't I see her going into your room?" he said.

I tore off a paper towel and started drying my face. He spit out his toothpaste and shook his head and stared at me.

"She's a nugget," he said.

I went out of the bathroom and back down the hallway to my dorm room. I listened for Melody crying, but I didn't hear anything. I knocked softly and still didn't hear her, so I went in. She was dressed and gathering up her things.

"I'm sorry," I said, but she pretended I hadn't said anything. She stuffed her purse in a little knapsack she had brought along. "I'm very sorry. I love you," I said.

She went over and stared at the bloody sheets on my mattress for a few moments and then she turned around and looked at my feet. She glanced up at my face and then she looked quickly down again. "Please don't try to talk to me," she said. "Don't ever try to talk to me," she said.

For a long time I thought life was easy for Melody. I mean, I always knew that being paraded around next to livestock could have some negative effect, but I guess I never realized how much of an effect it had. Now I'm sitting here thinking back over everything and remembering all of the negative things Melody told me about her adolescence. I always heard them and considered them and they were even part of what made me feel love and compassion for her, but now all of the difficult aspects of her early years are lining up neatly in my head.

Like the morning of the homecoming parade, in eleventh grade, when she found a partially decomposed rat in her locker. It was wrapped in a plastic bag with a red bow tied around the top. Queen Henderson, it said, on a tasteful card taped to the outside of the bag. The front of the card was a watercolor painting of a pale-skinned woman with a sun umbrella, fanning herself. A freshman boy who had his locker next to hers offered, chivalrously, to get rid of it for her. It stank up the whole east wing, Mel told me, and there was a crowd around her section of lockers holding their noses and giggling. "It was in my locker, it's mine to throw away," she told the boy as she carried the rat down the hallway and out to the Dumpster with everyone staring at her.

And there was the night she was out with some friends in her father's Ford Pinto. (These things happened to her before we met, but she told me about them.) When she and her friends came out of the movie, there were three human feces on the hood. Apparently, some misdirected teenagers' idea of irony -- turds on the hood of the homecoming queen's car. They were definitely "fresh human poops," she told me, and there was no question in her mind that she was targeted. She drove that car to school every day, everyone knew it was hers. "No question," she said.

And things happened with women, too. In junior high, the day after Danny Hoffman asked her out, two girls on the field hockey team tried to beat her up behind the school. They came up behind her and tripped her, hooked her shins with their hockey sticks. "We'll see if Danny wants you after this," they said, apparently intending to affect her beauty by beating her. I'd almost never heard of that, jealous girls taking vengeance physically. Fortunately, with her speed, Mel was able to make a run for it and escape with only a bruise on her chin and a small cut on her face.

Women with whom she tried to cultivate friendships were always rejecting her. The assumption was that because she was beautiful, she was unintelligent. But Mel wasn't stupid. She was smart and very sensitive and it must have hurt her deeply, even more deeply than the pranks. It's one thing to get dead animals in your locker from mindless adolescent boys, but it's another to be rejected by people of the same sex whom you like and respect, people with whom you want to be friends.

It's difficult to explain how it is that Mel and I ended up together because I don't understand it completely myself. I know that when we started trying to make it work again, I considered, at least to some degree, the hard parts of her childhood, and that warmed me up to her. I know that I felt very bad about how it happened in my dorm and that I wanted to make it up to her. In the years after that incident, she was ruthless with me. She used words like "violated" and "robbed" to describe her loss of virginity. More than once, she ended up beating on my chest with her fists. I wasn't certain why she had come back to me and wanted to get back together, except, I supposed, that she loved me, and I found that wonderfully compelling. At some point, in the midst of all of the guilt and the drama, I made up my mind that I would be the first person to love her for something besides her appearance. (Even her own parents, when she was a child, bought her makeup kits and encouraged her to enter the contests.) I think I thought I owed it to her. Even if what I saw inside of her was unappealing -- even if it was desperate, lacking self-esteem, vicious, self-preserving -- I would love it back to health. But that is another self-deceit. It's one that, God knows, I learned much too late in life. It's a deceit, the notion that you can save something or someone. It's a lie, the idea that, by sacrificing yourself, you can make better what is broken. But that is what I believed. I was taught some of it in church, by the same summer Bible camp preachers who made me think my penis would fall off if I had premarital sex. There was Christ, the divine sacrifice. If you loved and cared for someone, that is what you did: you sacrificed yourself until they loved you again or until you healed what was broken inside of them.

Mel and I were together off and on through the rest of our college years. Somewhere in all of that confusion, for some strange reason, we started thinking that getting married would be good for us. We were married the fall after I graduated in grand, sentimental style -- complete with flower children, the Wedding Song, and a white dress not unlike the one she wore for the Dairy Princess contest.

It's also hard for me to explain what happened during our four years of marriage, because, frankly, I don't understand that very well, either. I know we fought a lot. I know there was a lot of yelling, a lot of blaming for things that happened years before. I know that the sex was rarely good, that if I felt pleasure, if I let loose, I'd end up feeling uncomfortable, almost guilty. I know that I tried very hard to make it work between us. She cheated on me once and I felt I owed it to her to forgive. So I did.

It's also true that during our marriage she tried very hard to shuck the image of the beauty queen. She quit wearing makeup. Whenever she could, she dressed in ways that didn't flatter herself. She got furious with me if I so much as implied that she wear something I thought she looked sexy in. All the new friends she made were tough, hard-assed personalities, people who loathed superficiality. She tried to cultivate her inner self, to do things that she thought would add substance to her being. She got a master's in psychology. She counseled rape victims.

I've been delaying telling you what happened to Melody, because I wanted to explain how, since I've found out, I've been thinking and rethinking everything. I've been trying to figure out what role I had in it.

It was just last week. She called me and asked me out for coffee. "Sure," I said. I'm happy to be friends. It's good and healing to be friends. "How about tomorrow?" she asked, sounding rushed. "That's great. Tomorrow's great," I said, a little puzzled.

I had heard through one of our mutual friends that she wasn't doing that well and I had phoned her numerous times, but I always got her machine and she never returned my calls. I had heard that, among other things, she was living somewhat promiscuously, getting drunk all the time and sleeping with guys she didn't even care about. That wasn't the Mel I knew, but I figured that she was just hurting, going through a kind of a stage, or that she had changed, which was okay, too, of course.

I arrived early at the coffee shop where we had agreed to meet, and ordered, for myself, the kind of herbal tea I remembered was her favorite. I was feeling nostalgic -- no romantic hopes, I was just sentimental at the idea of seeing and talking with her again. As I sipped the tea, glanced around at the interesting-looking people, and listened to the opera they had playing, I found myself full of hope. I was believing that Mel and I could be friends again -- just friends, that's all, but the thought of it pleased me. I felt peaceful. I was glad she had phoned me.

The woman who served my tea was pleasant. She smiled when I asked for more hot water, and said, "Absolutely, let me bring it out to you." I felt slightly attracted to her -- just in a superficial kind of way -- and I thought, Things are working out. Mel and I did the right thing. Soon I'll even feel like dating again. I read the arts page of the newspaper for a few minutes and then I put it down. I put both hands around my teacup to keep them warm like I remembered Mel used to do and I sat there peacefully.

I saw her coming through the window of the coffee shop. At first I didn't even know for certain if it was her. Her hair was short, disheveled, and blond. In the time I knew her, she had never colored her hair, but on this day it was definitely blond. She had bleached it. She had on tight jeans, a tight white T-shirt, and a black leather vest with fringe. I saw all of those things first. She was walking with her head down. Her face was in the shadows.

"You like my hair?" she said, coming toward the table. "I was always a blonde at heart, wasn't I?"

I didn't say anything at first. I just stared at her face and tried to convince myself that what I was seeing wasn't real. It was too awful to do anything but stay calm, switch into crisis mode.

"I did it myself," she said, sitting down across from me. "Do you like it?" She tilted her head to the side, making her sarcasm obvious.

There were slits, open wounds, starting an inch or two below her eyes and extending all the way down her cheeks below the corners of her mouth. There was dried blood along the sides, and I couldn't believe, as fresh and open as they looked, that the slits weren't bleeding right then. You could tell the wounds were fresh, not older than twenty-four hours.

"Do you like it or not?" she said, not smiling, her eyebrows raised.

It was bizarre how things went off inside me at that moment. Some of the things were things you'd expect me to think of. I thought of Coach Phooder, Luis Lopez, and everyone shouting Nuke at me. I thought of Mel lying fetal in bed with the soft comforter I had bought for her next to her pale skin. I thought of the roaches in our apartment the fall we separated. I thought about Marianne Connely, what it felt like to have her between my legs. I thought of Mel in my dorm room, the blood on the sheets...

I guess it was some of the other things that fired inside of me that I found surprising. Again, that's how I'd describe it: a firing, a blipping of seemingly unrelated things: the deer that jumped out in front of my car and tried to run on its broken forelegs, blood on the support beams in my friend's basement, images of my father after he was burned, his charred, swollen head, his little stubs for hands...

I must have checked out for thirty seconds or so. Apparently I was staring beyond her, over her head, out the window or somewhere, because she waved her hand in front of my face violently and beat on the table with her fist.

"Hello, I'm here," she said.

I looked back at her and shook my head and said, "My God, Melody."

I reached out to touch her hand, which was still clenched on the table in a fist, but she yanked it back and laughed diabolically. She shook her head and said, "Don't touch me, don't ever try to touch me." I stared at her as she stormed out of the coffee shop in the same way she had stormed out of my dorm room years before.

I found out later what she had done. I mean, I had already figured at the coffee shop that she had cut herself, but I only found out for certain afterwards when I called our friends.

I don't know what all goes on inside someone, what kind of pain and anger they must be in to engage in that kind of self-mutilation, but in a very strange way it doesn't completely surprise me about Melody. I understand that the revenge she was taking wasn't just against me, but it's still hard not to feel that way, it's still hard not to feel like I've also been mutilated. It's been almost two weeks since she cut herself, and from what I am told, she is doing surprisingly well. She is in good hands. She is with a bunch of our mutual friends. She's had some kind of plastic surgery that will help make the scarring less obvious, but it will still be very visible. I tried to visit her earlier this week when she was in the hospital overnight. I called into her room from the nurses' station to tell her I was there, and a few of our friends happened to be in with her at the time. They met me outside her room, in the hallway, asked me if I "didn't think it was time I leave her alone." These were our very good friends, you understand -- our mutual friends.

I've been skipping work the last few days, sleeping in, wandering in and out of coffee shops and bars. I've spent a few evenings with some new friends that I've made here and I've tried explaining it to them, but they aren't like Mel's and my old friends. I don't know what I expect of them, they don't really know me very well. I would probably look at them strangely, too, if I heard them say some of the things I've said in the last few days.

Today I'm going fishing, I've decided. It's very male of me, I realize, but I'm doing it anyway because I'm in pain and I don't know what else to do. I'm tired of sitting around here racking my brain. I'm tired of feeling guilt for everything. I realize I'm guilty, but I also realize, or maybe I've decided, that we're all guilty: me, Coach Phooder, Luis Lopez, Mel's high school boyfriends, her jealous and ruthless girlfriends, the bastards who paraded her around with animals, her parents for buying her makeup kits and entering her in the contests, even Melody. We all scarred her, but now she has scarred herself, too. Anyway, who am I to patronize? She has had surgery, she has our friends, she will heal. I am alone here in this stupid town, and the way I feel now, I wonder if I will ever heal.

But then, who am I to feel pity for myself or for anyone? And who am I to patronize her? Who am I to assume that she wasn't right in doing what she did? Maybe it's sexist of me. Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on her physical beauty. Who knows? Maybe now she'll be better off. Maybe now she'll finally be free from all she hated about being what we made her into. Maybe now she'll finally be free from what she was on that Dairy Princess Polaroid.

My God I loved her, my God I'm sorry, my dear Melody, the beauty queen!

©2001 Stephen Raleigh Byler
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Searching for Intruders. Copyright © by Stephen Raleigh Byler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Stephen Raleigh Byler, whose grandparents were Amish, was born in a small town in the Pennsylvania Dutch country near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He earned an M.A. in religion and literature from Yale University and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. In addition to writing and editing for numerous small magazines, Byler has worked as a radio announcer, a bankruptcy counselor, and a guide at a fly-fishing lodge. He divides his time between Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Livingston, Montana. He is thirty-one years old.

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