Cheryl Glickman believes in romances that span centuries and a soul that migrates between babies. She works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit and lives alone. When her bosses ask if their twenty-year-old daughter, Clee, can move into her house for a while, Cheryl’s eccentrically ordered world explodes. And yet it is Clee—the selfish, cruel blond bombshell—who bullies Cheryl into reality and, unexpectedly, leads her to the love of a lifetime.
Tender, gripping, slyly hilarious, infused with raging sexual fantasies and fierce maternal love, Miranda July’s first novel confirms her as a spectacularly original, iconic, and important voice today, and a writer for all time.
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The First Bad Man
I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching—windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel. When I stopped at red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward. Who is she? people might have been wondering. Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda? I strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing 12 with a casual, fun-loving finger. The kind of finger that was up for anything. Once the doors had closed, I checked myself in the mirrored ceiling and practiced how my face would go if Phillip was in the waiting room. Surprised but not overly surprised, and he wouldn’t be on the ceiling so my neck wouldn’t be craning up like that. All the way down the hall I did the face. Oh! Oh, hi! There was the door.
DR. JENS BROYARD
I swung it open.
It took a moment to recover. I almost turned around and went home—but then I wouldn’t be able to call him to say thanks for the referral. The receptionist gave me a new-patient form on a clipboard; I sat in an upholstered chair. There was no line that said “referred by,” so I just wrote Phillip Bettelheim sent me across the top.
“I’m not going to say that he’s the best in the whole world,” Phillip had said at the Open Palm fundraiser. He was wearing a gray cashmere sweater that matched his beard. “Because there’s a color doctor in Zurich who easily rivals him. But Jens is the best in LA, and definitely the best on the west side. He cured my athlete’s foot.” He lifted his foot and then put it down again before I could smell it. “He’s in Amsterdam most of the year so he’s very selective about who he sees here. Tell him Phil Bettelheim sent you.” He wrote the number on a napkin and began to samba away from me.
“Phil Bettelheim sent me.”
“Exactly!” he yelled over his shoulder. He spent the rest of the night on the dance floor.
I stared at the receptionist—she knew Phillip. He might have just left; he might be with the doctor right now. I hadn’t thought of that. I tucked my hair behind my ears and watched the door to the exam room. After a minute a willowy woman with a baby boy came out. The baby was swinging a crystal from a string. I checked to see if he and I had a special connection that was greater than his bond with his mother. We didn’t.
Dr. Broyard had Scandinavian features and wore tiny, judgmental glasses. While he read my new-patient form I sat on a meaty leather couch across from a Japanese paper screen. There weren’t any wands or orbs in sight, but I braced myself for something along those lines. If Phillip believed in chromotherapy that was enough for me. Dr. Broyard lowered his glasses.
“So. Globus hystericus.”
I started to explain what it was but he cut me off. “I’m a doctor.”
“Sorry.” But do real doctors say “I’m a doctor”?
He calmly examined my cheeks while stabbing a piece of paper with a red pen. There was a face on the paper, a generic face labeled CHERYL GLICKMAN.
“Those marks are . . . ?”
The paper’s eyes were big and round, whereas mine disappear altogether if I smile, and my nose is more potatoey. That said, the spaces between my features are in perfect proportion to each other. So far no one has noticed this. Also my ears: darling little shells. I wear my hair tucked behind them and try to enter crowded rooms ear-first, walking sideways. He drew a circle on the paper’s throat and filled it in with careful cross-hatching.
“How long have you had the globus?”
“On and off for about thirty years. Thirty or forty years.”
“Have you ever had treatment for it?”
“I tried to get a referral for surgery.”
“To have the ball cut out.”
“You know it’s not a real ball.”
“That’s what they say.”
“The usual treatment is psychotherapy.”
“I know.” I didn’t explain that I was single. Therapy is for couples. So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping. Dr. Broyard rattled open a drawer full of tiny glass bottles and picked one labeled RED. I squinted at the perfectly clear liquid. It reminded me a lot of water.
“It’s the essence of red,” he said brusquely. He could sense my skepticism. “Red is an energy, which only develops a hue in crude form. Take thirty milliliters now and then thirty milliliters each morning before first urination.” I swallowed a dropperful.
“Why before first urination?”
“Before you get up and move around—movement raises your basal body temperature.”
I considered this. What if a person were to wake up and immediately have sex, before urination? Surely that would raise your basal body temperature too. If I had been in my early thirties instead of my early forties would he have said before first urination or sexual intercourse? That’s the problem with men my age, I’m somehow older than them. Phillip is in his sixties, so he probably thinks of me as a younger woman, a girl almost. Not that he thinks of me yet—I’m just someone who works at Open Palm. But that could change in an instant; it could have happened today, in the waiting room. It still might happen, if I called him. Dr. Broyard handed me a form.
“Give this to Ruthie at the front desk. I scheduled a follow-up visit, but if your globus worsens before then you might want to consider some kind of counseling.”
“Do I get one of those crystals?” I pointed to the cluster of them hanging in the window.
“A sundrop? Next time.”
THE RECEPTIONIST XEROXED MY INSURANCE card while explaining that chromotherapy isn’t covered by insurance.
“The next available appointment is June nineteenth. Do you prefer morning or afternoon?” Her waist-length gray hair was off-putting. Mine is gray too but I keep it neat.
“I don’t know—morning?” It was only February. By June Phillip and I might be a couple, we might come to Dr. Broyard’s together, hand in hand.
“Is there anything sooner?”
“The doctor’s in this office only three times a year.”
I glanced around the waiting area. “Who will water this plant?” I leaned over and pushed my finger into the fern’s soil. It was wet.
“Another doctor works here.” She tapped the Lucite display holding two stacks of cards, Dr. Broyard’s and those of a Dr. Tibbets, LCSW. I tried to take one of each without using my dirty finger.
“How’s nine forty-five?” she asked, holding out a box of Kleenex.
I RACED THROUGH THE PARKING garage, carrying my phone in both hands. Once the doors were locked and the AC was on, I dialed the first nine digits of Phillip’s number, then paused. I had never called him before; for the last six years it was always him calling me, and only at Open Palm and only in his capacity as a board member. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Suzanne would say it was. She made the first move with Carl. Suzanne and Carl were my bosses.
“If you feel a connection, don’t be shy about it,” she’d once said.
“What’s an example of not being shy about it?”
“Show him some heat.”
I waited four days, to spread out the questions, and then I asked her for an example of showing heat. She looked at me for a long time and then pulled an old envelope out of the trash and drew a pear on it. “This is how your body is shaped. See? Teeny tiny on top and not so tiny on the bottom.” Then she explained the illusion created by wearing dark colors on the bottom and bright colors on top. When I see other women with this color combination I check to see if they’re a pear too and they always are—two pears can’t fool each other.
Below her drawing she wrote the phone number of someone she thought was more right for me than Phillip—a divorced alcoholic father named Mark Kwon. He took me out to dinner at Mandarette on Beverly. When that didn’t pan out she asked me if she was barking up the wrong tree. “Maybe it’s not Mark you don’t like? Maybe it’s men?” People sometimes think this because of the way I wear my hair; it happens to be short. I also wear shoes you can actually walk in, Rockports or clean sneakers instead of high-heeled foot jewelry. But would a homosexual woman’s heart leap at the sight of a sixty-five-year-old man in a gray sweater? Mark Kwon remarried a few years ago; Suzanne made a point of telling me. I pressed the last digit of Phillip’s number.
“Hello?” He sounded asleep.
“Hi, it’s Cheryl.”
“From Open Palm.”
“Oh, hello, hello! Wonderful fundraiser, I had a blast. How can I help you, Cheryl?”
“I just wanted to tell you I saw Dr. Broyard.” There was a long pause. “The chromotherapist,” I added.
“Jens! He’s great, right?”
I said I thought he was phenomenal.
This had been my plan, to use the same word that he had used to describe my necklace at the fundraiser. He had lifted the heavy beads off my chest and said, “This is phenomenal, where’d you get it?” and I said, “From a vendor at the farmer’s market,” and then he used the beads to pull me toward him. “Hey,” he said, “I like this, this is handy.” An outsider, such as Nakako the grant writer, might have thought this moment was degrading, but I knew the degradation was just a joke; he was mocking the kind of man who would do something like that. He’s been doing these things for years; once, during a board meeting, he insisted my blouse wasn’t zipped up in back, and then he unzipped it, laughing. I’d laughed too, immediately reaching around to close it back up. The joke was, Can you believe people? The tacky kinds of things they do? But it had another layer to it, because imitating crass people was kind of liberating—like pretending to be a child or a crazy person. It was something you could do only with someone you really trusted, someone who knew how capable and good you actually were. After he released his hold on my necklace I had a brief coughing fit, which led to a discussion of my globus and the color doctor.
The word phenomenal didn’t seem to trigger anything in him; he was saying Dr. Broyard was expensive but worth it and then his voice began rising toward a polite exit. “Well, I guess I’ll see you at the board meeting to—” but before he could say morrow, I interrupted.
“When in doubt, give a shout!”
“I’m here for you. When in doubt, just give me a shout.”
What silence. Giant domed cathedrals never held so much emptiness. He cleared his throat. It echoed, bouncing around the dome, startling pigeons.
“I think I should go.”
I didn’t say anything. He would have to step over my dead body to get off the phone.
“Goodbye,” he said, and then, after a pause, he hung up.
I put the phone in my purse. If the red was already working then my nose and eyes would now be pierced with that beautiful stinging sensation, a million tiny pins, culminating in a giant salty rush, the shame moving through my tears and out to the gutter. The cry climbed to my throat, swelling it, but instead of surging upward it hunkered down right there, in a belligerent ball. Globus hystericus.
Something hit my car and I jumped. It was the door of the car next to mine; a woman was maneuvering her baby into its car seat. I held my throat and leaned forward to get a look, but her hair blocked its face so there was no way to tell if it was one of the babies I think of as mine. Not mine biologically, just . . . familiar. I call those ones Kubelko Bondy. It only takes a second to check; half the time I don’t even know I’m doing it until I’m already done.
The Bondys were briefly friends with my parents in the early seventies. Mr. and Mrs. Bondy and their little boy, Kubelko. Later, when I asked my mom about him, she said she was sure that wasn’t his name, but what was his name? Kevin? Marco? She couldn’t remember. The parents drank wine in the living room and I was instructed to play with Kubelko. Show him your toys. He sat silently by my bedroom door holding a wooden spoon, sometimes hitting it against the floor. Wide black eyes, fat pink jowls. He was a young boy, very young. Barely more than a year old. After a while he threw his spoon and began to wail. I watched him crying and waited for someone to come but no one came so I heaved him onto my small lap and rocked his chubby body. He calmed almost immediately. I kept my arms around him and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me. Because I was only nine it wasn’t clear if he belonged to me as a child or as a spouse, but it didn’t matter, I felt myself rising up to the challenge of heartache. I pressed my cheek against his cheek and held him for what I hoped would be eternity. He fell asleep and I drifted in and out of consciousness myself, unmoored from time and scale, his warm body huge then tiny—then abruptly seized from my arms by the woman who thought of herself as his mother. As the adults made their way to the door saying tired too-loud thank-yous, Kubelko Bondy looked at me with panicked eyes.
Do something. They’re taking me away.
I will, don’t worry, I’ll do something.
Of course I wouldn’t just let him sail out into the night, not my own dear boy. Halt! Unhand him!
But my voice was too quiet, it didn’t leave my head. Seconds later he sailed out into the night, my own dear boy. Never to be seen again.
Except I did see him again—again and again. Sometimes he’s a newborn, sometimes he’s already toddling along. As I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. Just some kid.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Miranda July
Miranda July is no stranger to awkwardness, or awkwardness among strangers. As an artist, actress, filmmaker, and writer, she is unafraid of uncomfortable moments. There's an earnestness to her naked observations, and a view of the world as one in which we're all connected by the fact that we're looking for connection.
Her debut novel, The First Bad Man, centers on a middle-aged woman named Cheryl. She lives by herself, suffers from a nervous condition known as globus hystericus (she often feels like she has a lump in her throat), and works for a self-defense organization. The life she has settled into is radically changed when her bosses' twenty- one-year-old daughter, Clee, moves in with her and not by Cheryl's choice. Clee's parents need a place for her to stay. The two women make an odd pairing, and their relationship morphs from a tense dynamic to an unexpected intimacy.
The First Bad Man is a book about getting unstuck, and the rewards to be found in the messiness of our lives. While at work, Cheryl thinks about an emotion that drives her: "My eyes fell on the gray linoleum floor and I wondered how many women had sat on this toilet and stared at the floor. Each of them the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it."
Earlier this month I spoke with July about sexual fantasies, relationships, and motherhood. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. Michele Filgate
The Barnes & Noble Review: What was on your mind when you started writing this novel? What was happening in your life that might've inspired it?
Miranda July: I think often ideas accumulate over many, many years, you know? An idea comes. But I do know that I was waiting for a novel idea that had characters in it that were enough removed from me that I would feel free, because I had already started to write a novel that wasn't like that. That was based on a true story from my life. And then I stopped that and made The Future, and it was while I was making The Future that I kind of bumped up against this problem in there. And I thought "Huh, this is going to be a lot more instinctual and easier to do if these are people who I can put a lot of feeling into, but who I could for example never play in a movie." It came sort of all at once on a long drive.
BNR: And was this before you had your baby, or was it after you had your baby?
MJ: It was before. I had the idea at the end of 2010, right before my last movie came out. I made notes throughout the year and I got pregnant in like August or something of the following year. So I knew I wanted to have a baby, and I kind of planted the idea of this baby in there, thinking, "Well, surely I'll have some feelings about that. And I don't know what they're going to be yet, so I won't fill that part out too much in my head." But yeah, it was somewhat calculated.
BNR: Being pregnant must have influenced how you felt, especially about writing about the maternal aspects in the book.
MJ: Well, yeah, then I was a mom when I was writing. And I finished when [my son] was two. I only wrote the first draft when I was pregnant, and you don't know anything about being a mom when you're pregnant, so I left those parts pretty spare. I wrote a ton of different things immediately after having my son. Some of those things were important, but I think ultimately the fiction of the book overwhelmed my story in a way that I couldn't have gotten my head around in those first few months. I thought everything was so crucial and important, you know? That there was only one baby story and that was my story. And over the next few months and years, I would kind of realize, "Oh, this baby Jack is not my son. Cheryl's not me." All these things kind of returned to the fiction, and ultimately there were just these pieces that were crucial but comparatively small. I didn't have to make up feelings that I hadn't had. But I could also make her different from me, you know?
BNR: Absolutely. The First Bad Man has as much to do with maternity as it has to do with sexual fantasies, both violent and sexual, and the realities of sexual encounters. Was it uncomfortable to write about any of those topics?
MJ: Any of those? No. I enjoyed it. I mean I guess the physical things the sexual stuff was just fun. If anything, I had to rein myself in. The physical stuff was just kind of tricky because it was newer to me. I mean, not like there's that much description of what actually happened, but I wanted to make sure things weren't that I wasn't writing anything that was so crazily painful, you know, that it would compromise what was important. So I'd be always kind of miming it, like thinking through, "Okay, she pushes down her head. What would that feel like?"
BNR: At first the narrator, Cheryl, who's in her forties, has a crush on a man much older than her. Phillip is in his sixties. She finds out he's in love with a sixteen-year-old, and he wants Cheryl's permission to sleep with her. Cheryl starts to imagine herself as Phillip having sex with Clee and pretends she's a bunch of other guys having sex with Clee. It really turns her on. You rarely see a literary novel in which a woman fantasizes about having a penis, or one in which a woman fully embraces her sexual urges and/or masturbates. I'm curious what made you write about that.
MJ: Yeah. I mean partly just what you said, like actually even just hearing you say all those words together, I was like "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I wrote that book?" I was kind of alarmed, like, "Is this legal?" So it's funny: regardless of what they are, we all have sexual fantasies. From even a purely creative perspective, it's pretty interesting that our vantage point, our identity, can shift around a lot. I'd say a lot of people probably have fantasies they're not even in, which is interesting. Or you're in it, but are you watching? Are you actually both people? If you really slowed yourself down and were like, "Wow, now I'm pretending I'm feeling what he feels. Now I'm her. I'm feeling what she feels." You know what I mean? It's kind of crazy what you'll do.
I don't think the fantasies necessarily match the exteriors. Like I don't think gay people just fantasize about gayness, you know? I don't think straight women just stay women in all of these. And given that in reality we're all quite attached to our identities and they're very defining and we wouldn't want to accidentally be confused for a man or something, or even might feel fear about gayness or trans identity, then it's pretty interesting territory to get into all of that stuff without being at all overtly political. And I have this character who probably wouldn't ever even use the word gender. So that's fun to kind of separate it, from its context in the real world.
BNR: At one point Cheryl says, "I realized that we all think we might be terrible people, but we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It's a kind of undressing." In many ways, this book is about the need for some kind of intimacy, and I love how you capture how difficult it can be to really open ourselves up to someone else. It makes me think of the app you created, Somebody, in which you can ask a stranger to deliver a message to someone you know. Do we have to bear everything in order to have true connections with people? Do we have to make ourselves vulnerable?
MJ: I guess I've been playing both through the app and with the book (and definitely making those overlapped in time), playing with this area. Like sometimes it might be more honest to play a role: there might be something kind of liberating about that. You're trying to have a connection with someone who's so different from you, but nonetheless is like a real person with a beating heart. The way to do that might not be through having a long conversation about your personal history or something, you know?
I think I myself am interested in brief in reality, they're usually pretty brief moments that feel like real clarity or intimacy with improbable, unlikely people. And you wouldn't say those people know you through-and-through better than anyone else, but maybe that moment of connection was more satisfying, or went deeper than you've had in a while with anyone. I guess I just enjoy not ruling out sort of clumsy connections.
BNR: And life is kind of full of clumsy connections, isn't it?
MJ: Yeah. I think that's pretty much all we do.
BNR: At one point toward the end of the book, Cheryl thinks to herself: "If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? These exotic revelations bubbled up involuntarily and I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother." How does being a mother transform you? Do you think about art differently? Do you approach the world differently?
MJ: I think probably the biggest thing is like, more empathy. You've gone through this thing that's like, the most common thing there is. And it is actually really intense, and it's hard, and nothing is ever the same again. Now you have that in common with all these different kinds of people, and also like with the history of life. And all time. Even with animals, actually. And it kind of doesn't end in a profundity, you know? It changes your relationship to time, to your own mortality certainly, and those things are all kind of large. They're real. That all happens, even though day-to-day it's just like, "Oh my god, who's going to pick him up from preschool?" And there's little shifts that come from not having endless time to worry about yourself, you know?
But I think art-wise I'm pretty much the same. Like lots of moms I know, I think my work and my ability to work got better after I had a baby, but I don't know if we're all fooling ourselves or we're just all lucky enough to have good childcare. But I think there is a kind of like, "Okay, we're not fucking around anymore" level of seriousness. In part because if I'm going to do something that's going to take me away from my child, then let's make it good, you know? Not like it wasn't good before, but . . . your time is invested with another layer of meaning.
BNR: And you don't have as much time to waste. You have to use your time accordingly.
MJ: Yeah. On the flip side, when you get into some bad mental loop about your work, like it or not, you're interrupted. You're interrupted by this adorable little person who doesn't care at all about what you're going through and says funny things. And even though I can resent it in the moment of transition, I think it's pretty good to be knocked out of your head every day.
BNR: You set up a website to sell objects you've collected that have to do with the book: a number on a napkin, a stretchy green dress, a Gatorade, etc. What has that experience been like, and has anything surprised you?
MJ: It's funny, I didn't think too much about the timing of the whole thing. In truth, the objects will probably become more and more valuable as more and more people read the book and know what the hell their significance is. And in a way you need to have already read the book to know. So as a marketing tool, I'm not sure what it is. But I guess it's more of a small spectacle that brings you to what is also a website but can lead you to buy the book. I think it kind of works.
And it's funny. I mean, I'm a writer and I do these other things. The website appeals to the artist side of me. The artist side really likes that fictional objects have become real. The writer side of me is almost slightly annoyed, because it's never 100 percent accurate. The objects can never be exactly what I saw in my head. I mean . . . some of them. I guess the Gatorade, you know? Writers are so precious about their words and I'm no different. I just have other interests, too. So I slightly cannibalized myself for that one.
BNR: What are your favorites of the objects that you've collected?
MJ: I like the ones that are most significant to the book these are still for sale, too. There are the yellow curtains. I feel like that's a subtle moment, but a moment of transition when those come up. The crystal, which is right at the beginning of the book and recurs throughout. For me the objects themselves are like "Well, this is all just junk," you know? I can tell that the buyers think the things that are handwritten are the most valuable. I don't know why, because they're just like a scrap of paper with a name on it. Sold for $700. And I'm not quite sure why that is.
BNR: Maybe they're thinking of it like an autograph.
MJ: Yeah, yeah.
BNR: There are a lot of humorous moments in your book, but there's also a lot of disappointment and sadness. Which moments do you find more difficult to write?
MJ: The sadness when you can write it is easy, but it's definitely not a place I can go all the time or just call up on demand. It's kind of a delicate emotional process, whereas humor I think, my tendency if anything, I'll overuse it. It's hard for me. Sometimes you twist it a little and it becomes more true and funnier, but it also becomes sadder because it's more available in a way. But a book and its characters have to evolve. Instinctually, I started letting them. Some tricks went away.
BNR: You've done so much in addition to writing a novel and a collection of short stories: writing, directing, and starring in two films, and numerous performance-art projects, including an interactive sculpture garden. Is there a main connective thread between everything you work on? Are there common themes throughout these works that ou find yourself coming back to often?
MJ: I don't think about the themes. I can see them in retrospect when I look back. I'd say I'm trying to start from a very intuitive place, so it's not like, "Well, I love how people connect so maybe I'll do something about that." There'll be some thing: I don't know why it's interesting, and it's a thread I just have to follow. Usually, it ultimately ends up not too far from the territory of everything else I've ever made, but I guess the important thing is that it's something that's mysterious to me now. And you can't really fake that.
January 28, 2015