“Lara Williams makes a bold debut with this razor-sharp, magnificently humane story collection.” Entertainment Weekly
She finds herself single, twenty-nine, partially-employed, and about a half a stone overweight. Roller dexter of eligible friends rattling thin. Thirties breathing down her neck like an inappropriate uncle. She jogs. Looks good in turquoise. Finds herself punctuating gas “better out than in!” patting her stomach like a department store Santa. This is who I am, she thinks.
The women in Lara Williams’ debut story collection, A Selfie as Big as the Ritz, navigate the tumultuous interval between early twenties and middle age. In the title story, a relationship implodes against the romantic backdrop of Paris. In “One of Those Life Things,” a young woman struggles to say the right thing at her best friend’s abortion. In “Penguins,” a girlfriend tries to accept her boyfriend’s bizarre sexual fantasy. In “Treats,” a single woman comes to terms with her loneliness. As Williams’ characters attempt to lean in, fall in love, hold together a family, fend off loneliness, and build a meaningful life, we see them alternating between expectation and resignation, giddiness and melancholy, the rollercoaster we all find ourselves on.
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About the Author
Lara Williams is a writer based in Manchester, England. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, The Independent, Vice, the Times Literary Supplement, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and will be featured in Best British Short Stories 2017. She writes and teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. A Selfie as Big as the Ritz is her debut.
Read an Excerpt
And so it begins. You graduate university. You move back home, slotting neatly into your single bed, examining the tears in the wallpaper, the posters on the wall. You sleep in till eleven. Your mum cooks you porridge, setting it down on the kitchen table, the mealy textures of your childhood. "I've got a good feeling about this one," she says. "You were born to work in an art gallery."
You wait your turn. The room smells dusty and grand. You notice a single oat clinging to the hem of your skirt. You flick it off and it leaves behind a tiny, white "O." O dear, you think. O no. You are annoyed at your mum for having made you porridge. You want to call her. If you think I am an adult, you want to say, then why are you making me meals consisting primarily of milk? A man in a black shirt with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie calls your name. You take a seat. You say you are skilled in research, you completed your dissertation on contemporary art and twentieth century literature, you have customer service experience, you are an avid gallery goer. "Fantastic," he says. "Great."
"Are you aware this is not a paid position?"
You sit in front of the television stroking the cat. You are wearing pajamas. You cannot believe you are a person who has had sex, who has driven a car. The cat massages its claws into you, it dispenses a steady purr. You go to the kitchen and make yourself a slice of toast and a gin and tonic.
You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn like a badge of honor. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. This marching course of spreadsheets and workflows and thin-lipped jokes in strategizing brainstorms, this is all there is and we knew all along, while you were dilly-dallying with your Chaucer, frolicking with your intertextuality, we were squirreling away the capacity to deal with this. Imagine being that lacking in idealism, you think. Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers scouting bands, imagine never picturing yourself in front of a glossy iMac. Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier? You grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.
And then you meet him. He has wintry eyes, a handsome voice and he wears smart suits. He is older than you. He shows you how to make the battery life on your phone last longer by switching off the Wi-Fi. He knows stuff like that. You love everything he says. You want to write it down, to run your fingers over it, to hold it up to your face and kiss it. You think about his heart a lot, his kind heart. You imagine it a sinewy, sloppy substance, like a thick broth. You imagine it in your hands. You hold your ear to his chest to hear it beating and you don't ever let yourself think about the day when it will stop. One day you tell him this is just a stopgap, just until you figure out what you're supposed to do. He places three fingers in the spaces between your knuckles and you feel a contentment quite close to death. Before you know it you wear sensible shoes to middle management meetings and caveat proposed website frameworks before clip-clopping home to get dinner on.
You are walking through airport security, clutching your passport. You feel like two children on an adventure. You spritz yourself with perfume in Duty Free while he browses digital cameras. This is it, you think. This is happening. He asks you on the last night of your holiday. You say yes straight away. It might as well have been written down on a piece of paper, folded in your pocket all along. You guessed the correct answer! You win a life together!
You are lying on the floor wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and gray tracksuit bottoms. You hear the front door open. "I'm not well," you say, "I feel sick, I think I'm dying." He drops his briefcase, wraps his arms around your waist and throws you over his shoulder. You feel giddy and light, like a fluttering, translucent piece of paper. "Do you feel less sick now?" he asks, spinning you around the room. "How about now?" You giggle and squeak, thinking: why is he back from work early?
You are drinking tea in bed. He sits on the edge of the mattress wearing his wool coat. He holds his palm to your cheek. It is cold and you flinch away. "Helen in Finance says her husband is looking for a Marketing Manager so I've forwarded her your CV," he says. "Maybe you should post out the portfolios you put together?" You take a long gulp of tea and stare straight ahead. "Okay," he says. "Okay. I can post them out." He kisses your knee beneath the duvet. As he leaves the room you notice his eyes. They look tired.
He comes home late. You have fallen asleep on the settee. You open your eyes, your face feels mulched. You struggle to sit up. You think maybe you're still sleeping. "After work drinks?" you ask. "Was she there?" You hadn't intended to sound so vitriolic. "If you're so convinced I'm fucking her," he replies, "then maybe I just should."
You sit across from him in a hammy Italian bistro, winding spaghetti around your fork between sips of white wine. You look at him and his face is old and unfamiliar. Who are you? you think. And why are you touching my hand?
You are in a pale green room with floor-to-ceiling windows. You are sitting cross-legged. You catch the eye of a man you haven't seen before. He is attractive. He has dark eyes and you hold his gaze. The instructor counts your breathing: In ... two ... three ... four ... Out ... two ... three ... four ... As you collect your coat he touches your shoulder. "I don't normally do this," he says. "But would you like to go for a drink?" You sit next to him and when his leg rests against yours you let it. It's late and you're drunk. "Let's get out of here," you say. You fall over and he catches you, holding your face and pressing his lips to yours. You respond. It is that easy, you think. It is already done. You tell him you're married. "I know," he replies. "So what." You hail a taxi. You're not sure if the fall was deliberate. You never see him again.
At some point it occurs to you: you will divorce. Divorce is our destiny.
He is packing his bags and you are hysterical. "It doesn't matter what her name is," he tells you. "It doesn't matter who she is." You go downstairs and find a knife in the kitchen, scraping the thin blade across your wrist. Well I suppose it doesn't matter if I open up my veins, you think. I suppose it doesn't matter if I bleed out right here on this floor. The door slams behind him.
You cry and sleep, a routine of sorts, performed several times daily. And yet you worry that maybe you're not quite feeling it fully, that it hasn't quite reached the tips of your fingers, lying dormant under a few layers of skin, when suddenly it shoots out, pouring forth from every orifice, spinning circles around the room and it is all there is.
It is all there is.
You are now one of them. You have joined that special club and your initiation rites are a series of squeezed shoulders, of weak smiles. Stories of former breakups, bad boyfriends, husbands cheating, confessionals offered up, little tidbits of consolation, like treats. Fuck you, you think. Fuck you, this is different. This is different because this is happening to me. Your friends want you to talk about it but you cannot. "There is no vocabulary for heartbreak," you say. "There is no point."
You take up painting. There is something pleasingly definite about it, slicking fat strips of color onto a canvas. You think about how strange it is to still have absolutes like this, like marriage, in this day and age. Couldn't there be another option, leasing it out for five, maybe ten years then reviewing it when the time comes. We are a generation of renters not buyers. Your friend Suze tells you to stop being cynical.
You have a date. You wear a tailored, chiffon dress and a simple white gold pendant. He is prompt, polite, he pulls your chair out for you and asks you what you would like to drink. You tilt your head back and hold the menu in front of you. He rolls up his sleeves revealing thick, hairy arms. You ask him what he does and he says he works in capital projects. You ask him if he enjoys it and he says it pays the bills. A tall blonde woman walks by and his eyes follow her past the table, past the bar, through the swinging doors and into the toilets. You wish someone had warned you about tall blonde women earlier. Sexually transmitted diseases, drunk driving, bar snacks and tall blonde women. The real stranger danger. Your food arrives and you feel an anxiety about eating you have not felt in years. He says he's glad you ordered a salad, a woman should watch her weight. He says he likes your dress and he's looking forward to taking it off later. He says it's good that you're doing so well in your career, just so long as you don't turn into a bitch, like his boss, now there's a woman who wants it. I don't have to listen to this shit, you think, and at once, you realize you don't have to. You dab French dressing from your mouth and set the napkin on the table. "I'm terribly sorry," you say. "But I have somewhere I have to be."
You are gardening. You look at your hands as you pull knots of weeds from the dirt. You have a young woman's hands with tapered, elegant fingers and small, square fingernails. The sun falls warmly on your face. It is nearly time for lunch.
A Lover's Guide to Meeting Shy Girls; Or; Breakup Record
It was not so much that Devon's heart had been broken, that seemed too cavalier a vernacular, too vague a phrase; his experience had been more precise, more surgical, he felt. Prised from beneath his rib cage, removed carefully (and perhaps even lovingly?) then slowly, studiously, crushed. It came as quite the surprise.
He had believed with all the necessary vanity he was the charmer, the heartbreaker. What's more he recognized a certain responsibility, a certain culpability, selecting his words, monitoring his actions, mindful of the capacity they had to flatter a young lady, to write checks that for reasons he didn't need to explain he could not cash.
The heartbreaker, it transpired, was Emily; a very unlikely candidate. Emily was a sweet girl, a shy thing really, benign as a piece of fruit. She had a fundamental softness to her; a feathery way of talking, a lightness and delicacy in everything she said or did. He remembered their first date. He had taken her to a French patisserie, ordering a tray of macarons and a bottle of Champagne because that is, as everyone knows, how you romance shy girls. With French things and cake. She chose a pale pink macaron, with a chocolate ganache, tentatively biting into it. He looked on, surprised it was the pastry that crumbled beneath her bite, and not her lips and teeth against the meringue.
There was something about her softness that made him feel more viscerally himself. More potent in her presence. A serious and scholarly gray against her faded pastels. What's more, she was a dancer. And he, well, he was a musician. How could it have gone so horribly wrong?
They were watching Annie Hall, on a Saturday morning, her laptop balanced on the floral coastline of her duvet, her blonde hair spilling around her face. "I don't think we should be a couple anymore," she said, gazing off to the side of the room, staring at the antique typewriter she used to hang her necklaces, her ballet pumps tied to the door, adding: "Doesn't Woody Allen have very brown eyes?" Ha Ha Ha! he thought, you silly, whimsical thing; you stupid, flighty bitch. Ha Ha Ha! But then she got out of bed, pulled a gray hoodie over her satin nightgown, and wouldn't stop crying until he had left.
And so, he decided to write a breakup record. A scooped out Kübler-Ross road trip across the pitted landscape of his grief; spectral strings, whispered vocals, maudlin hand claps, even a bit of tambourine. It felt a fitting tribute. An appropriate exorcism. The one thing that might serve to cleanse his soul.
But that was seven years ago and with each passing day the album was not complete, it became more important for him to make a perfect record. To make THE perfect record. The perfect breakup record.
He was learning Ableton.
Morag, his new girlfriend, did not care for music. But more than that, she couldn't understand why he was still writing an album about a girl he had not seen in seven years; a girl that, in effect, he had only been in a relationship with for a little over four months.
Morag had recently taken to eating raw beetroot, chopped into cubes, served without any seasoning or dressing. She would sit cross-legged in front of the television, watching cooking shows, watching dating shows, and sometimes, watching cooking and dating shows. She would laugh. She would laugh a cruel, unforgiving laugh.
"We got that wrong," she said, pointing at the screen. "We got food wrong. We got sex wrong. We're the generation that got a lot of stuff wrong."
She looked round at him, beetroot juice smeared across her mouth and fingers, like a recently devoured kill. He blinked back at her, squinting into the opaque universe of her thoughts.
"I'm going to work on my record," he said, making for the basement.
When he and Emily first split up he imagined his longing for her a pulled piece of chewing gum, thinning with time, gently breaking and falling balletically apart. But what he found was, over time, it got worse; and with each passing day, passing moment, it became increasingly impossible to articulate into music the pain of having lost her, at having lost such a sweet, shy girl.
Sometimes Morag would be sweet; or try to be sweet, but it always felt performative, an artifice of sweetness, aspartame smiles and candied gestures she could never quite pull off. They would lock eyes, momentarily complicit in their theater, and she would drop the act, shouting at him for not having done the washing up, swearing, or doing something else similarly uncouth.
He would catch himself mid–outlandish gesture. One time they were walking through the park and he grabbed her face, pressed his mouth to her ear, and made some strange animal sound, some howling yelp, because he didn't know what else to say. He had not felt like this with Emily; his feelings for her were certain, assured, a thick unyielding presence at the center of his chest. His feelings for Morag were not certain, terrifying and vertiginous, hazy as a waltz.
He tinkered at his laptop, playing with different samples, dropping in different beats. He wrote and rewrote the lyrics. He slowed down his vocals eight hundred percent, stretching them out so they felt drowsy and desultory, as static and fractured as the tide. But nothing was good. Nothing was ever good enough. Eventually he gave up, returning upstairs to join Morag in front of the television.
He sat on the floor beside her. "Nothing's working," he said. "Nothing I make sounds right."
She rolled her eyes, biting a cube of beetroot, offering him a piece. "You'll get over it," she said.
He ate it from her hand and leaned his head against her shoulder; breathing in the sweet sweat smell of her jumper, the bobbles tickling his nose.
"What if I don't?" he said. "What if I don't ever get over it?"
She shrugged his head from her shoulder and turned to look at him. "You will," she said, her brown eyes extending into his, like gentle tiny hands.
One of Those Life Things
You thought you might have exited your twenties, before announcing in whiskey hushed tones, a ribbon-y flick of your wrist, that you had been left for some kid in their twenties, some baby, some blonde piece. You feel like some version of yourself sent from a future, dark timeline, all feather boas and fingernails. He hadn't even the decency to have done it at a point when you could have properly committed to the role. Your options scatter like playing cards in front of you, offering only wishy-washy monologue, half-assed character pieces. Where does one go from here? Aerobics and am-dram? Pilates and Prozac? Bridge and bourbon? What is the narrative here?
You look for an apartment. Somewhere high up and central, somewhere you can flesh out and possess; your dim light bloating through like a Halloween pumpkin. A houseshare is out of the question. You sit on the living room floor, dividing your stuff into piles, His 'n' Hers, mournfully compartmentalized into past, present and future; present the buffer zone between, a veritable no-man's land, ripe for the taking. You both have eyes on the garlic crusher. A bitten crochet throw, a housewarming gift from your aunt, sags sadly unclaimed. The curtains heave against the breeze of a half-opened window, taking steady breaths; the house has grown tolerant to your bickering, indifferent to your swipes; it rolls its eyes and shrugs its shoulders. You used to lie in bed, listening to its creaks and moans, the boiler chugging off and on, thinking you did still like his smell, you were still very much in favor of his smell. Your best friend Kitty scowls dutifully, scowling like a pro. He remains upstairs, appearing only occasionally, offering to help with the heavy stuff, then returning upstairs. There is no goodbye. There is no need. You remember how he'd fuss in the kitchen, asking if there was anything you wanted to watch on television. "I am bored," you would reply. "I am bored."
Excerpted from "A Selfie as Big as the Ritz"
Copyright © 2016 Lara Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Lover’s Guide To Meeting Shy Girls; Or; Break Up Record
One Of Those Life Things
Where I Am Supposed To Be
This Small Written Thing
It’s A Shame About Ray
Toxic Shock Syndrome
Here’s To You
Sundaes At The Tipping Yard
A Single Lady’s Manual for Parent/Teacher Evening
A Selfie As Big As The Ritz
The Getting Of the Cat
As Understood By The Women