“We are all walking around this city with our hearts sadly swimming in our chests, like dying fish on the surface of a still pond. It’s enough to make you give up entirely.” —from Instant Love
But we don’t give up. We keep trying. We’re either too stupid to learn from our mistakes or we honestly believe that the next time will be different; it’s hard to say which. Driven by the mad hopefulness that is part of the human condition, we are constantly falling in and out of love with a slightly different version of the person who came before. Jami Attenberg chronicles those exact moments with heartbreaking realism in her powerful debut, Instant Love.
Told through the eyes of three young women and their friends and lovers, Instant Love explores what it means to be in love, what it means to be lonely, and what it means to be both at the same time. Holly turns to computer dating to find love even as she thinks wistfully of a former boyfriend who loved her well and fed her ice cream. Maggie recounts the story of her one crazy summer to her disbelieving husband and feels the distance between them grow wider than the void across their king-sized bed. And Sarah Lee remembers the one who got away and the one she ran away from, all the while moving toward the one she can actually love.
As Holly, Maggie, and Sarah Lee move through the rituals of modern love, they have to decide who is worth taking a chance on in a world where things don’t fall into place easily, people are often difficult, and disappointment is the rule. Through their stories, Attenberg presents a rare, honest look at love.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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The Perfect Triangle
Holly is getting her makeup done by the burnout girl she befriended at work. They're in the bathroom at the back of the pharmacy, and Shelly's dusting one perfect pastel-colored triangle on each eyelid. Same as hers. She's been staring at Shelly for two nights a week, 5:00-9:00 pm, most of senior year, and has fallen deeply in love with her makeup.
Holly has tried to make the same perfect triangles herself at home, usually with Seventeen magazine spread out next to her on the bathroom counter. She looks at the photos and diagrams and memorizes the quick tips, muttering directions under her breath as she stares into the mirror, but it's no use. Her eyes end up looking more like Picasso's than Madonna's. It turns out she's no good at blending in the makeup. She's going to suck at blending in for the rest of her life.
Tonight she's going on a date, that's why all the makeupping. She's going out with a boy named Christian who is nineteen and who likes the Smiths and the Cure and New Order. Holly is seventeen and likes New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division. She knows she should like the Smiths, but Morrissey seems like such a whiny turd. Holly has lied to Christian about this, because he worships Morrissey. Morrissey changed his life forever, that's what Christian says. He's a vegetarian now and everything. Meat is murder, he says.
Shelly likes Aerosmith and Judas Priest.
That's how Holly and Christian met, because of music. They were both wearing the same New Order T-shirt, the one with the Brotherhood album cover (which is a classic, even though it is only a few years old), when Christian came in the pharmacy to pick up his father's heart medicine. No one else wears those shirts in her hometown. Holly lives in a town so small she can barely breathe. That's the joke, she's heard it said before: If you want to breathe, go to the next town over.
Coincidentally, that's where they sell New Order T-shirts, too, in the next town over. At that little shitty record store in the minimall, between the 7-Eleven and the dry cleaner's. That's where they both got their shirts. They talked about that record store for five minutes, how it was such a rip-off but it was the only place around. A line built up behind him, and she thought he was going to leave, but then he stepped to the side and waited, and her heart fucking flung at her chest, hard and fast and repeatedly, because oh my god, this guy is going to like me.
No one ever likes her like that.
Because of their age difference, Holly and Christian are keeping their romance a secret. No one wants anyone getting arrested for statutory anything.
Plus the engine on his car is so loud she can hear him coming from a block away, and she jokes about it with him, but she's not kidding, that car is a piece of shit.
And he has shaved the sides of his head and left the hair on top long so that it spills over his narrow face in an awkward way and makes him look vaguely like a celery stick.
Also, there is the matter of Christian living in his father's basement because he doesn't feel like getting a job while halfheartedly taking community-college classes in accounting because he doesn't feel like going away to college. He doesn't feel like doing much of anything except riding around in his car and running errands for his dad, talking about Morrissey, and drinking beer from cans in paper sacks. Holly is two years younger than him, and already she knows she is going to blow him away in life, though she's not sure if she's allowed to feel that way yet, so she beats herself up for being a big snob. She is no better than her girlfriends, who say things like, "Like I would date a guy who wasn't in National Honor Society" because all of her friends are smart-girl snobs.
That's why she likes this burnout girl so much. Shelly thinks it's normal to date a guy who goes to community college. Shelly thinks it's OK to spend an hour putting on eye makeup. It doesn't matter to Shelly if he smokes or drives a crappy car. He has a car, chica! (Shelly likes to translate words into Spanish whenever possible. It's the only class she isn't failing.) At least he has a car. At least you have a boyfriend.
Shelly has a secret that isn't much of a secret at all. When she was ten, a neighbor kidnapped her and kept her in his basement for ten days. He was fat, with a belly like a pregnant woman's, and he had a wandering eye. Holly remembers when it happened, because it was the first time she was aware of something bad happening to another kid her age. Sure, there had been divorced parents (like hers), skinned knees and broken arms, and Holly even knew a girl whose dog had died after getting hit by the FedEx truck. But no one she knew had got kidnapped and--she was guessing, everyone was guessing, but no one knew for sure except for the police and Shelly's parents--raped by some psycho nutjob who got away with it for as long as he did because he was a regular churchgoer, and no one ever suspects a man who is one with God.
That's what Holly's mother said when they finally busted him. She slapped down the newspaper on the kitchen table, three cups of coffee into the morning, and yelled, "Anyone could see the man was crazy! Look at that eye! You wear one little crucifix around your neck and your shit don't stink."
Holly's mother is a godless heathen. She says this proudly to her two friends in town, who are also divorced and also mothers. They spend a lot of time in the next town over.
She has thin black hair and is tiny and focused, like a firecracker right before it explodes. She is always suing Holly's father for more child support. Every time he writes another book, she asks for more money. Holly has a younger sister, Maggie, who has lots of medical bills. Neurologists. Therapists. Pharmacists. "Plus they are two teenage girls, Bill," her mother would say into the phone. "They eat, they shop, they breathe." The expenses, her mother hisses.
Holly's mother exhausts her.
Shelly moved away a few months after the trial. She went to live on the other side of the state with her dad, who blamed her mom for what happened. Her mother also blamed herself for what happened, because she was at work, and not at home waiting for her child. And she blamed herself for marrying her husband in the first place. She married him because he was the first one who asked. What if no one else asked? What if? Her life was just one big mistake leading up to her child being kidnapped and molested. So Shelly left and her mother began to drink, and she did this for a few years, she was very good at it, until her boss at the salon told her to cut it out, quit coming to work smelling like you've been making out with Bartles & Jaymes all night long or you're fired. She got herself in a program, went to a lot of meetings, made a lot of apologies, and tried to get her daughter back. A mother should be with her daughter, don't you think?
Shelly always complains when her mom is "twelve-stepping" her again.
Take her, said Shelly's dad. It's my turn for some fun. Shelly's dad throws acid parties now. She sometimes visits him on the weekends and smokes pot with his girlfriend who is only ten years older than her and used to live in Korea and knows how to swear in ten different languages. He's acting like it's the sixties again, that's what Shelly says when she comes back after a visit. He's trying to turn back the hands of time. El tiempo.
They are taking turns, this family, with being fucked up. That's what Holly thinks.
Shelly's been back in town for a year, and everyone knows exactly who she is; no one has forgotten a thing. People don't forget things like kidnap and rape and molestation and violation and major jail time in a town so small no one can breathe. No one will touch Shelly. No one wants to go near her, except for the other burnout girls. They recognize her as the kind of girl who has a particular understanding of extreme sorrows inflicted by a different kind of fate than applied to the rest of the world.
It's funny, though, because Holly can see how easily Shelly could be something else besides a burnout girl. All the rest of them have a raw look, narrow and paranoid in the eyes, and they're too skinny (except for the one who is too fat), and have bad skin and wear too much makeup that they've probably shoplifted. Whenever Holly walks by them when they are smoking in the school parking lot, they are always laughing dark, bitter laughs, raw and scratchy and pained. They sound as if they've stayed up late the night before, when she was in bed by eleven, just as her mother asked her to be.
But with Shelly, Holly sees puffy soft cheeks, and pink sad lips, and otherworldly gray eyes that are always drifting off toward the sky, toward somewhere else besides the fluorescent peak of the pharmacy. Shelly is soft feathered hair, a real natural blond, dirty blond maybe, but blond nonetheless, and perfect pink-and-purple eyelids, and tight black jeans and a form-fitting black button-down flannel shirt that just hits the waist, and high-heeled black boots with a strap and silver buckle around each ankle. Shelly is quiet until you get to know her, and then she has something to say. Shelly has a secret, that's what Holly thinks. When you look at her, you know she has a little secret just bursting to get out of her.
In other words, she's a real knockout.
holly sits on the toilet seat while Shelly finishes her eyes, and stares at the reflection of the bathroom in the mirror. There are so many signs in this bathroom, reminders of how to be a normal person when you're away from home: Wash your hands. Don't flush sanitary napkins. Please put the seat down when you're done--yes, that means you, Alan, Greg, Schneider, and Mario. ("Please" is underlined, and someone has drawn a star next to it.) There is also a framed print of a sketch of a rose over the toilet. A bottle of air-freshener spray rests on the toilet tank. Lilies of the Valley. What valley?
Shelly tells her to look up, and doses her lashes with mascara. Then she asks if she's in love with Christian.
So are you totally in love with him, Holly?
Christian? Christian who doesn't like to read anything but NME? Christian who has things like "Buy Jelly" written on his hand?
Holly laughs as if to say, As if, and Shelly looks at her all soft and puffy and sad, like, How can you not be in love? Don't you know how lucky you are? And a little bit of: Then why have I spent the last hour doing your makeup if you're not even in love?
So Holly says, No? Maybe?
Finally she lands on: Well, it's only been five weeks. Which should have been her answer in the first place.
Shelly tells her to stop squirming or you'll fuck it all up. While she leans over she sticks the round edge of her tongue out between her lips and holds it there. Some of the pink eye shadow drifts down from Holly's lid and her applicator onto Holly's chest.
Sit still, she says. Do you want to look hot or not?
holly hates makeup on principle. Makeup is what other girls wear, girls who need to wear it in order to get attention, or to make themselves feel better, or to feel like they fit in with everyone else. These are girls who cannot carry their weight in the world otherwise. But I am an exceptional person, this is what Holly tells herself in between beating herself up for being such a snobby smart-girl bitch. (She cannot help it if she is the smartest girl, possibly the smartest person, in her AP biology class, and maybe even AP chemistry, too.) She has other things to worry about besides makeup.
Her mother doesn't wear makeup. When Holly asked her once to show her how to put some on, she said, "Really?" and Holly knew her mother thought that that was the dumbest thing she had ever heard. Like, why would you want to? Like, what is wrong with you?
And the truth is, Holly looks better without it. Makeup makes her look darker and older, like she has something to cover up when in reality she has fine, rosy skin, bright eyes with dark lashes, and plump red lips. She is bursting with youth. She doesn't realize it now, but she will in ten years when she looks back at her high-school graduation pictures. She is a ripe plum waiting to be plucked.
But if she's going to have a friend who is a burnout girl, and she's going to date a guy with no future who sometimes wears eyeliner on their dates, if she's going to lead this secret, opposite-world life, she might as well try wearing a little makeup.
every time she goes out with Christian, she lets him do something new to her body. She is conducting an experiment. She is her own science project. Mix a hand with the space between the thighs, it feels this way. Apply a tongue to a nipple, it feels that way. Oxygen and water and heat equal steam.
This seems to be the main purpose of their dates, this getting to the half-naked-on-the-black-leather-couch-in-his-father's-basement part of it. The couch impresses her. It has a few cigarette burns on it, but otherwise it's luxurious. All the furniture in Holly's house is wicker or velour or some sort of flower-patterned fabric. The couch totally works on her. All she wants to do is lie on that couch and make out with Christian.
They both have become better kissers in the last five weeks, although he still likes to do this tongue-swordplay action that shethinks requires too much effort for the end result. When she kisses his neck instead, he says: Are you trying to seduce me?
Which is preposterous. She has no idea what she is doing. But she says yes.
And then he says: Are you turned on?
From the Hardcover edition.
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