An MSN Best Book of 2016
Set against the stark and surreal landscape of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment is a coming-of-age memoir about young love, obsession, and loss, and how a person can imprint a place in your mind forever.
When Leigh Stein received a call from an unknown number in July 2011, she let it go to voice mail, assuming it would be her ex-boyfriend Jason. Instead, the call was from his brother: Jason had been killed in a motorcycle accident. He was twenty-three years old. She had seen him alive just a few weeks earlier.
Leigh first met Jason at an audition for a tragic play. He was nineteen and troubled and intensely magnetic, a dead ringer for James Dean. Leigh was twenty-two and living at home with her parents, trying to figure out what to do with her young adult life. Within months, they had fallen in love and moved to New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment,” a place neither of them had ever been. But what was supposed to be a romantic adventure quickly turned sinister, as Jason’s behavior went from playful and spontaneous to controlling and erratic, eventually escalating to violence. Now New Mexico was marked by isolation and the anxiety of how to leave a man she both loved and feared. Even once Leigh moved on to New York, throwing herself into her work, Jason and their time together haunted her.
Land of Enchantment lyrically explores the heartbreaking complexity of why the person hurting you the most can be impossible to leave. With searing honesty and cutting humor, Leigh wrestles with what made her fall in love with someone so destructive and how to grieve a man who wasn’t always good to her.
About the Author
Jorjeana Marie has narrated over seventy audiobooks, performed in hundreds of commercials, and starred in Listen to Grandpa, Andy Ling with Elliott Gould. She is also a stand-up comic who has opened for Richard Lewis, Louie Anderson, and Kathleen Madigan.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Leigh Stein
A Hot Night in Late July
I was with him the day he got the motorcycle, a 1988 Honda Nighthawk—1988 for the year he was born. We had matching leather jackets for when we rode through the desert, two silhouettes against the night. In a box somewhere I still had my helmet, a souvenir from the woman I was when we were together.
It was a hot night in late July when I got the news. My new boyfriend had central AC at his apartment, so that’s where we were, sitting on the couch with our bare feet propped on an ottoman that doubled as a coffee table. Chinese takeout. Channel surfing. I’d stopped the remote on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a reality show about poor young Traveller women getting married like queens.
The first time the phone rang, the caller ID said it was Jason, so I didn’t pick up. I’d been avoiding his calls for the past six weeks, ever since he visited me in Brooklyn and we got in a fight at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade; we got in a fight in Central Park in the rain; we got high and we got drunk and we killed time until he finally flew back to Little Rock and I decided it was really over this time.
For the past couple of days, Jason had been calling more frequently, so when my phone rang a second time, I wasn’t surprised, but this time, it was an unknown number. I let the call go to voice mail. On TV, a housewife was demonstrating how she cleaned her teeth with Clorox, straight from the bottle. I was watching her and my boyfriend Brian was watching me, as I listened to the message. The caller identified himself as Jason’s half brother in Birmingham. I recognized the accent they shared, but we’d never met, or even spoken before.
“What did he say?” Brian asked.
“He just asked me to call him back.”
“Maybe he’s calling to tell you Jason killed himself,” he said, and my stomach dropped—not because I thought he might be right, but because Brian had come up with an explanation for the evening’s phone calls before I’d even begun to wonder if something was wrong.
I called the number in Birmingham back.
His brother’s voice was calm and unemotional. There was a motorcycle accident. Jason had not “made it.” For one sweet second, I thought it was a joke. A cruel one, sure, but Jason had never been above cruelty, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him coming up with this scenario in order to punish me for refusing his calls. I held my breath and waited to hear his laughter in the background, for him to come on the line and say, Gotchou. Meanwhile, I watched a muted trailer‑park bride corset herself into a gown studded with roses made from Swarovski crystal and climb into a black limousine. Why didn’t I turn off the TV? It was a Saturday night in late July. Jason had been dead since Thursday.
When it was clear that no one was waiting in the background, I apologized to his brother for thinking he was Jason and not answering his calls sooner. “I decided to stop talking to him . . . recently,” I tried to explain.
“I figured as much,” he said, not unkindly.
I promised to look into plane tickets to Little Rock, even though a part of me wondered whether or not I should even go to the funeral. Already I could feel the pins and needles of old insecurities, and didn’t want to be there, just one ex‑girlfriend among many, queuing up for my turn to say why I thought what we had was so special. I was with him the day he got the motorcycle, I could say. We had matching leather jackets.
After we said good‑bye, I borrowed Brian’s laptop to Google Jason’s name, because if something had really happened, if this wasn’t a joke, then proof of it would be online. There wasn’t an obituary yet, but I found a memorial page where people were leaving condolences and animated gifs of flickering candles that would never expire. I had the option to “sign the memory book” or “light a candle,” but I couldn’t even begin to think of any condolences to offer, when I just wanted to be consoled myself. Brian was beside me, but he might as well have been a stranger I’d picked up at a bar. We hadn’t known each other long enough for him to have heard all the stories of who I was before I met him.
The only other result I could find on Google was an article in an Arkansas newspaper about Jason: “Man accused of stabbing another in brawl.” Eleven days before the accident, Jason had been arrested for stabbing a man in the stomach outside a gas station. When the police officer asked about all the blood on the concrete, Jason admitted “someone might have gotten cut,” and pulled a knife from his pocket.
In the comments section at the bottom of the article, someone had written “SAD DUMB THUGS.”
“Jason stabbed someone,” I told Brian, “before he died.”
“I don’t know.” I shook my head, trying to clear it. This was the kind of violent act that I always knew he was capable of, and that I used to worry I would be the victim of. I didn’t know what kind of woman that made me, if I still loved and missed a man like that. If I still wanted him to come back.
The Pin-Pen Switch
Jason and I met at an audition for a tragedy. It was late February, and all of Chicago was blanketed in snow. I’d come prepared with a monologue, but the assistant director asked if I wouldn’t mind also reading a scene—there was one guy left who didn’t have a partner.
Approaching me, Jason smiled, and then looked at the floor. He was tall and athletic, wearing jeans and a gray T‑shirt that read BRUCE LEE IS MY HOMEBOY over a thermal under‑ shirt. He looked like the popular jock from every teen movie; I could imagine a slow‑motion shot of him walking along a wall of lockers with his arm around a girl. Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have even known how to start a conversation with him. He would have been the one to come up to me, to ask if he could borrow my Geometry homework.
I introduced myself and said I was auditioning for Medea, who was he auditioning for?
He said his name was Jason, but he didn’t know what the play was about; he just auditioned for whatever the drama department offered.
“Jason is Medea’s husband’s name,” I said. “Like Jason and the Argonauts?” He stared at me. I babbled on: “Basically, he leaves his wife for this rich princess, and so Medea gets revenge by murdering their children and riding off in a chariot.”
“How old are you?” he said.
“Twenty‑two. How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
I guessed twenty‑one, but he wouldn’t say if I was right or wrong.
We found an empty stairwell where we could run lines, but it was hard to get started. Up close, Jason’s skin glowed soft and golden. His eyes were sea‑glass green. He had a slightly upturned Irish nose and a default sneer that bloomed into a bright, disarming smile when I said or did something amusing. Each time the sides of our arms or legs brushed against each other, I felt a pinch of pleasure, the sting of wanting more. I made myself stare at the script in my lap.
“So why do you know so much about this play?” he asked. “When I was nineteen, I moved to New York to go to acting school,” I said. “I love Greek tragedy. My monologue is from Alcestis,” I said, eager to impress him with where I’d been and what I’d done in order to distract him from what I looked like.
With my round, moony face, protruding elfish ears, and plain dark hair I never styled, there wasn’t a chance I was in his league. My expressive eyes were my only good feature, and I’d lined them in black for the audition. Self‑conscious about weighing twenty pounds more than I had in high school, I hadn’t taken off my clothes for anyone in a year—not since I’d dated my thirty‑six‑year‑old manager, who told me I wasn’t allowed to mention our relationship to anyone at the restaurant where we worked, and then stopped returning my phone calls after I told him I was a virgin. For a year I’d been kicking myself. Why hadn’t I just kept my mouth shut and let him give me what I wanted? At twenty‑two, my virginity was something I had to get rid of, fast, or it would be too late for me.
The more Jason smiled at me, or laughed at things I said, the more it seemed like we were flirting with each other, but I didn’t trust my own assessment of the situation. Maybe Jason was gay. It made more sense that an attractive gay man would find me funny and smart than it did for an attractive straight man to be interested in me.
Eventually we read through the script a couple of times. In the scene, Medea is confronting Jason after he has abandoned her and their children and taken a new wife.
You did well / To come, she says, for I can speak ill of you and lighten / My heart, and you will suffer while you are listening. Then Medea proceeds to recap their love story: first she saved his life from some fire‑breathing bulls, then she slew the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece so that Jason could capture it and win the throne of Iolcus. When Pelias, king of Iolcus, went back on his word and wouldn’t give it up, Medea tricked his daughters into killing their own father. To Jason, she says bitterly, This is how I behaved to you, you wretched man, / And you forsook me, took another bride to bed.
While we waited for our turn to see the director, I followed him outside for a cigarette break. There’d been a blizzard the night before, with forty‑mile‑an‑hour winds and lightning that shot its way east from Iowa—the first “thundersnow” storm since 1891, the forecasters said. I was at my friend Vadim’s house‑ warming party when it started to hail, and spent the night so I wouldn’t kill myself driving home. Vadim was a sweet, tall, handsome, talented, brilliant guy. More important, he adored me. So what was my problem? Why couldn’t I just fall in love with him? My parents were baffled. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to chase the difficult (an acting career) and the forbid‑ den (the relationship with my manager). All night I stared at the ceiling in Vadim’s bedroom—he took the couch—trying to recalibrate my feelings so that this night could be the beginning of our future together. It didn’t work. By morning, I was so tired and grumpy from having slept wearing my contact lenses that I considered skipping the audition entirely. But here I was, standing out‑ side in the cold, wide‑awake.
Jason gestured toward the dark, snowy landscape beyond. “I did all this,” he said.
“You made it snow?”
“No, I work for the school, landscaping the grounds.” I noticed his work boots.
I wasn’t a smoker, but I asked for a Marlboro, just to prolong the time we spent out there, away from everyone else.
“Where do you come from?” I asked. Jason didn’t sound, or dress, like any of the guys I’d gone to high school, or acting school, with.
“Alabama. Arkansas. Tennessee.” He inhaled. “I was All‑ State wrestling in Tennessee in high school. We moved around a lot for my stepdad’s job. In Corpus Christi I could hold bread in my hands by the water and birds would come and get it. But my dad lives here.” Birds would come and git it. Jason said git for get and pin for pen and did for dead. In dialect studies, this is called the pin‑pen switch. Gold star, Leigh, I thought to myself. What are you going to do with that information?
“I don’t usually get along with people,” I blurted out, trying to put into words what I sensed we might have in common. The truth was I got along with everybody, but there was a disconnect between my outgoing Midwestern cheerfulness and the nagging feeling that I was different, strange, destined to live somewhere other than the place I had come from.
“Me either,” Jason said. “What are you doing later?”
I have almost completely forgotten our actual audition in front of the director, but I remember every beat of our time in the cold, the color and texture of his coat when I stood close, what his face looked like when he was blowing smoke.
When the audition was over, I called my mom and told her
I had met someone and would be home late.
“That’s great, Leigh,” she said. I was living at home in the suburbs with my parents again, for the third time as an adult, after buckling under the stress of trying to piece together a living in New York (twice), and then losing my sublet in Chicago. Some of my friends in New York had parents who paid their expenses while they “figured things out.” I had parents who let me move back into my childhood bedroom while I did the same. When Jason told me he lived alone, I was impressed.
First we drove to the supermarket to get some groceries.
“You make me really nervous,” Jason said in the pasta aisle.
I made him nervous? “Wait, why?”
“Because you’re pretty and nice and smart. Can I hold your hand?”
I gave it to him. Mine was cold and his was warm. The middle‑ aged checkout ladies smiled at us; they all knew his name. I felt like I’d been cast in some role I’d never even dreamed of playing.
We drove back to his apartment and had a snowball fight in the soft yellow light of the parking lot, laughing and pushing each other into snowbanks. Once inside, I borrowed a pair of clean socks because the snow had soaked through my boots, and he cleared the bedding from the couch. He told me that’s where he slept every night, instead of the bed, because it was less lonely in there with the TV on.
“Do you like Kool‑Aid?”
I had to think about it. “I’m not sure if I’ve had it since I was eight,” I said.
For dinner, he cooked penne Alfredo with Ragú sauce from a jar, and stirred a pitcher of blue Kool‑Aid. Then we made out on the couch for a while. The Oscars played in the background; we pretended we were watching.
Every time I moved back in with my parents, I had an escape plan, and this time was no different: I was working on my application to a directing program at a theater school in Montreal. This will be perfect, I thought. We can have snowball fights and fool around until I move to Canada.
“Do you have a Facebook?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you?”
By the time I got home that night, he had removed his date of birth from his profile, so I wouldn’t know he was only eighteen years old. I turned off my phone and went to sleep. When I woke up the next day, there was a voice mail from him, left in the early hours of the morning.
“Leigh,” the message said. “I don’t actually hate spending time with you. We should go out sometime. Okay, bye.”
When I called back he said he’d stayed up late Googling me and reading my poems. “They’re very . . . Jewish.”
“Jewish,” he repeated.
“Oh, I know which one you read. . . .” The poem that begins, Miriam danced in Exodus while the Red Sea drowned the horses. . . .
“Can you look at my English paper that’s due in an hour and twelve minutes?”
Was he serious? “I have to go to work,” I said.
“I’ll e‑mail you the outline now and you can look at the real paper later. What are you doing this weekend? Want to go out?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I just asked you out,” he said.
“And I said, ‘Sure.’”
After we hung up, I wrote in my diary, There must be something horribly wrong with him I haven’t discovered yet.