In these nine stories, Marian Crotty inhabits the lives of people searching for human connection. Her characters, most often young women, are honest, troubled, and filled with longing. In the title story, a young woman begins a job on a construction site after leaving an abusive marriage. In “Crazy for You,” two girls spy on a neighbor’s sex life, while their own sexuality hovers in the distance. In “A Real Marriage,” a college student marries a boyfriend to help him stay in the United States. In “The Fourth Fattest Girl at Cutting Horse Ranch,” the daily life of a residential treatment center for eating disorders is disrupted by the arrival of a celebrity. The stories are set in Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Persian Gulf, and often touch on themes of addiction, class, sexuality, and gender. What Counts as Love is a poignant, often funny collection that asks us to take it and its characters seriously.
About the Author
Marian Crotty is an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals such as the Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and New England Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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Crazy for You
That summer, while Emily's mom painted pictures of Iranian militiamen in the garage, we watched Sarah Morrison have sex. Sarah rented the casita behind the Freedman's pool shed, a tiny stucco building with just enough room for a bed and desk — a little alcove in the corner with a hot plate and a mini-fridge. She took classes at Arizona State and wore pink tights under frayed jeans cut off at the swell of her thighs. Emily thought she looked like Madonna with long curly hair and slightly less eye makeup, but I said she was prettier. From the window in the Freedman's bathroom, with Emily's Nikon bird-watching binoculars, we could see everything.
In the mornings and evenings, he was a milky white redhead with a sunken space in his chest. The guy in the afternoons looked about as unassuming as the first guy, but when he took off his clothes, it was all sweat and testosterone: a broad back and twitching muscles, a look on his face like he might eat Sarah alive without saying a word.
Emily said she liked the redhead better because he was Sarah's boyfriend and because he'd helped her make a mousetrap-powered car for the fifth-grade science fair the year before, but this was because Emily was boring. When I told her I liked Kirk Cameron, she said her celebrity crush was a tie between Jonas Salk and Simon Wiesenthal.
"The Nazi Hunter?" she said. "Don't you know about the Nuremburg Trials?"
The redhead always came over with a stack of textbooks and spent hours behind Sarah's typewriter. When they did have sex, it looked like the diagrams of procreation I'd seen in the slideshow at Woman Readiness Day the spring before — the two of them staring off in their own directions as if they were each imagining the mystery of the egg leaving the fallopian tube. Mr. Afternoon made Sarah wriggle like a half-dead fish.
After, we'd lie on the floorboards in Emily's room picturing their blurry pink-white bodies and imagining what they said to each other. Emily said Sarah was in love with the redhead and was only hanging around with Mr. Afternoon to be nice, that Mr. After noon came from a bad family and Sarah felt sorry for him.
"Oh, Sarah," Emily would say, dropping her chin to make her voice sound deep. "I can't believe a girl as smart as you lets me kiss her. Your family would hate it."
I said Mr. Afternoon was a Russian mobster who liked Sarah because she reminded him of his wife who'd died of scurvy.
"They don't have scurvy," she said. "It's a modern country, too, you know."
"She was very poor," I said. "She only ate stale bread and garbage."
"Maybe," she said. "I guess if she was an orphan."
It had been Mrs. Freedman's idea for Emily and me to hang out. My mom had been cleaning the Freedman's house two times a week for years, but Mrs. Freedman hadn't met me until that spring when I got tonsillitis and my mom made me come to all of the houses with her. Most of the places were empty with a key under the mat and a note on the kitchen counter with instructions, but Mrs. Freedman spent two hours grilling me about school and telling me I had good bone structure. After that, she kept inviting me over.
"The woman's a moron," my mom said. "She thinks you're going to help her fat kid become skinny. This is the problem with women like that. They marry for money and then get pissed off when they have ugly kids."
But my mom made me hang out with Emily anyway. Her boyfriend, Rick, had been sleeping over more often, and when he woke up, he liked the apartment to be quiet.
Plus, my mom said spending time with a private school kid and her rich, educated parents would improve my chances of getting a college scholarship. "If they give you a book, you take it," she said. "If they say a word you don't know, you write it down and look it up when you get home."
I pretended to hate the Freedmans as much as my mom did, but the truth was I liked being in a house where the soap came wrapped in flowered paper and where people disagreed without yelling at each other. Hanging out with Emily was better than being alone in the apartment with Rick, who was always farting out loud and making me wash soggy cornflakes out of his cereal bowls.
Mrs. Freedman left us alone unless she heard us rummaging in the freezer, looking for Mr. Freedman's Klondike bars, and then her ears perked up. At eleven years old, Emily was already wearing a size fourteen in women's clothing, and Mrs. Freedman was afraid that any misstep would push her not-yet-teenager into plus sizes.
"Emily," she would call out. "Come here. Let me see you," and I would follow Emily into the garage where Mrs. Freedman would be drinking a glass of wine and squinting at an oil painting of an Iranian soldier shrouded in a homemade paper mask, throwing his hands up toward the burning city behind him. "Don't you want to play outside?" she would say. "Don't you want to swim?"
Sometimes I would ask questions about the paintings hanging from wire cables. The creepiest one showed a woman in a long black dress and headscarf standing behind a pile of blown-up dead people, holding a rifle and staring at me with wide blank eyes like she was expecting to die any minute and didn't care. I wanted to know why these people were killing each other and if anything like this had ever happened in America, but whenever I asked questions, Emily would roll her eyes.
"God," she would say, "don't get my mom started."
By July, I had not learned any new words, Emily still had a stomach roll that made her zip-in-the-back-paint-splatter jeans squeeze themselves open, and Mrs. Freedman started locking us out of the house.
"It isn't good for you to be cramped inside all day," she said. "Kids should run and play."
She was stirring a lemonade-flavored packet of Crystal Light into a glass pitcher on the marble counter, feet away from my mom, who was wiping down the baseboards with a wet rag. I had never seen her do this at home. In our apartment, the cleaning was my job.
"What do you do at your house, Dina?" she said. "Surely your mother doesn't let you mope around like an invalid."
My mom pretended not to hear, but I knew she was worried I would say something about Rick and how the two of them argued. I shrugged. Comparing our apartment to the five-bedroom house where the Freedmans lived was like comparing cream of wheat to cheesecake. At my house, I spent my alone time doing chores, lounging around on my mom's bed in her black teddy, and listening to Kiss 104 on her Walkman. I knew the teddy was a gift from my dad because she kept it in the same ladies casuals shoebox with the pictures of them dressed up for prom. One time in third grade when I cried about not having a father, she showed me the picture of him with long hair and big teeth, blue-gray eyes that looked a little bit like mine if I squinted, and told me I did have a father but he wasn't a good man and didn't have anything to do with us. When I asked about him again, she whacked my butt and told me to stop being a brat.
"Mostly I talk to my friends," I said. "Or I read. My mom says I have to get a college scholarship if I want to go."
Mrs. Freedman shifted her gaze between the two of us, nodding slowly, like the possibility of not being able to afford college was a good, sad worry to have. My mom gave me a look. She didn't care if I lied about having friends, but she didn't like me talking about money.
Emily laughed. "Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club books don't count," she said. "Don't you ever read something that comes in a hard cover?"
"You should borrow Anne of Green Gables," Mrs. Freedman said. "Emily will give it to you before you leave."
Mrs. Freedman told us to stay in the neighborhood and not to come back before we'd made an effort not to be slugs. Because this was Phoenix, a city where the asphalt never cooled, she slathered us with sunscreen and left the Crystal Light on the back porch. We were sitting on the wooden swing, considering our options, when Sarah came outside and walked to her mailbox. She was wearing a pair of cutoffs and a tank top without a bra underneath. Even from a distance, I could see her slanty cat-eye makeup and her pink, shimmery lipstick.
When we got up and walked to the road, Sarah looked up from the Safeway circular with a rib eye on the front.
"I was thinking about you two," she said. "I have some old clothes if you want them."
"Really?" I said. I was hoping for a pair of jeans with holes in them. Everyone else at school wore ripped jeans over leggings, but my mom said I had another thing coming if I thought she was going to spend money for me to look poor.
"Sure," she said. "It's good stuff, but college is making me fat." She patted her tiny butt, which was round and perky and barely covered by her shorts. "Hang on," she said. "I'll be right back."
Sarah brought out two Nordstrom bags filled with clothes and helped us carry them to the back porch. "Just leave anything you don't want," she said. "I'll take it to Goodwill."
I wanted to go through the clothes immediately, but Emily said I could have them all because they wouldn't fit her anyway.
"Maybe if you had a couple nice things," I said, "you'd want to get skinnier."
Emily leaned down to double knot her shoelaces. "You're an idiot."
"Well, if your mom makes us go outside every day, you'll lose weight."
"My mom's a bitch," Emily said. "I'm going to tell my dad on her."
She said she was going to walk to her dad's office on top of the Southwest Airlines building and tell him her mom was abusing her. "He takes my side every time," she said. "He knows she's not a good mother."
I put my hand on top of the crown of my head, which was already burning up from the sun and pretended she wasn't talking. Emily didn't know anything. When her parents wanted to punish her, they took away the television. When my mom got pissed, she slapped me in the face. If she got mad at Rick, she threw his clothes off the balcony.
"Maybe tomorrow," I said. "It's kind of far." I was wearing turquoise jellies that had once belonged to my cousin, and if we walked the thirty minutes it would take to get to her dad's office, my feet would be killing me.
I wiped my forehead with the sleeve of my T-shirt. "What about Mr. Afternoon?"
"What about him?"
"Well, it's late," I said. "If we go to your dad's office, we won't see him."
She shrugged. "We're going to my dad's office."
She crossed the street and stood with her hand visored above her eyes. In the grass behind her, a crow splashed in the flood irrigation.
"I'm staying here," I said.
"You can't," she said. "You're my guest, and that means you can't be in my yard unless I'm there, too."
I didn't cross the street until she started moving. Emily was not a bad walker. She had a solid stride and strong arms that pumped along when she moved. Mostly the fat part was her stomach. I followed her past rows of wide houses with pebbled porches and grass lawns. In my neighborhood, the apartment buildings were all surrounded by pink gravel and sand lots where people threw beer bottles and cigarette butts, but her neighborhood was all green — even in July.
When we got to the Southwest building, a tall gray tower with mirrored windows, my shirt stuck to my skin, and my eyes fuzzed from the sun. We walked through a revolving door and into the air conditioning. There was a marble floor and two silver elevators with a framed letter board in between them, listing the offices.
"Do they have a water fountain?" I said. "I'm dying."
Emily shrugged. "I changed my mind," she said. "I'm going home."
"I'm too thirsty to go anywhere," I said. "You shouldn't have made me walk this whole way if you aren't even going to talk to your dad."
Emily shrugged. "So find a water fountain. I'm not stopping you."
"Your mom is mean to you," I said, "because she wishes you weren't her kid."
She narrowed her eyes. "You can't use my binoculars anymore," she said. "As soon as we get back, I'm hiding them."
Emily turned and started walking fast. We went the whole way back to her house with ten feet between us, Emily cutting in and out of gravel side streets lined with prickling cacti and numbered trash bins bulging with boxes and broken furniture. My feet kept slipping in my jellies while I tried to keep up. When we got to her street, Mr. Afternoon's white truck was by the mailbox. Emily went through the metal gate and stopped. When I caught up, she tilted her head toward the casita.
"What?" I said.
"Something's wrong," she said, but she kept her jaw set and her eyes squinty so I'd know she was still mad.
I walked past Emily to the stone path between Sarah's house and the pool shed.
She was moaning the way my mom did at night with Rick. I crouched down, and Emily stood beside me.
"What?" she said.
My toes were sweaty and crowded with dust. "It's Sarah," I whispered. "They're doing it."
Sarah's house was kitty-corner to us, feet away, and she was screaming. Through the binoculars, I had seen her mouth open, but I had never heard her before. I figured he was thrusting himself inside of her while he licked her boobs. Or, maybe she was straddling a chair without underwear, which was my favorite thing she did, and he had managed to do it with her through the spokes. I knew that when we went inside to pee, mine would be slippery.
Emily pinched me. "Dina."
I looked up.
While we waited for my mom to pick me up, Emily worked on a five-hundred-piece puzzle of horses she'd gotten for Christmas, and I lay on her floor, moving my arms and legs against the cool spots like I was making a snow angel. When I got bored, I told her I was sorry for what I'd said about her mom, but she said I was no longer welcome at her house.
"My mom only invited you because your mom's a maid, and she feels sorry for you," she said. "I didn't want to hang out with you in the first place."
"That's not true," I said. My mom wasn't a maid. Maids worked in hotels and hospitals and wore uniforms. My mom was a housekeeper. "Your mom feels sorry for you because you don't have friends."
Emily separated brown puzzle pieces from green ones. "You're a nymphomaniac," she said. "You're just as bad as Sarah. It's why you love her so much."
It was the first new word all summer. I figured it must mean the same as "slut," and Emily was wrong. Sarah wasn't a slut. She could be on MTV. Besides, Emily had been the one to put the binoculars in my hands. She was the one who'd named Mr. Afternoon and who'd spent hours wriggling around on her bed pretending to be Sarah in ecstasy. If anyone was a nymphomaniac, it was Emily.
"Don't look so disappointed," she said. "It's not like you wanted to be friends with me anyway."
When I told my mom that Emily and I had a fight, she asked if it was my fault or Emily's and if I wanted to apologize. When I didn't answer, she said I could stay home as long as I did the list of chores she left for me and didn't bother Rick if he was still sleeping.
When Rick was there, I read Anne of Green Gables in my room, and when he wasn't, I put on my mom's teddy and lay in her bed, listening to her Walkman and thinking about Sarah, but I kept getting distracted by Emily and how maybe she was right about me being a nymphomaniac. I was thinking about this on my mom's bed, listening to Madonna on her Walkman, smelling the powdery smell of Sarah's tube top and pressing my hand between my legs when I looked up and saw Rick watching me. I turned off the Walkman and pulled a pillow on top of myself. He was wearing the green polo shirt he wore to work and laughing.
"How old are you, Dina?" he said. "Eleven?"
I nodded. My face was burning. I wondered how long he'd been watching me.
"What do you think about when you do that?" he said.
I shrugged. He had seen my breasts and my privates, but he was still standing there like it was funny. "Are you going to tell my mom?"
He shrugged. "I don't have to."
Rick didn't tell my mom, but when she left for work, he would ask me a million questions about trying on my mom's lingerie and how long I'd been doing it. He wanted to know if I had a crush on somebody or a boyfriend and whether or not this boyfriend had showed me his business. Did I know what an orgasm was and had I had one and was there anything about sex I wanted to know? Because he was a man and my mom wasn't and he knew what boys liked. He said I was a pretty girl, just like my mom, and this meant I needed to be careful not to give myself a bad reputation. I figured he was just trying to make sure I wasn't going to let a boy see me naked, but a week later, when he was still asking me what I liked to imagine when I took my clothes off, I told my mom I wanted to go back to the Freedmans' house.
"Are you sure?" she said. "Because you don't have to. If Emily did something mean to you, you don't have to hang out with her."
I shook my head. "It was my fault," I said. "I want to apologize."
I got my mom to take me to Kmart so I could buy Emily a puzzle of a field of poppies with the birthday money I'd gotten from my grandma. It was nicer than the horse puzzle, but when we brought it by the house, Mrs. Freedman seemed more excited about it than Emily.
Excerpted from "What Counts as Love"
Copyright © 2017 Marian Crotty.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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
Crazy for You,
The Fourth Fattest Girl at Cutting Horse Ranch,
Common Application with Supplement,
What Counts as Love,
A Real Marriage,
The Next Thing That Happens,
A New Life,
The House Always Wins,
What People are Saying About This
“Marian Crotty’s bold, fresh young voice is a welcome addition to the literary scene.”
“With sensual, brave, and wonderfully evocative prose, Marian Crotty explores the seemingly tattered nature of love, taking us deeply into the varied lives of her characters and making us care for them all. They are as alive for me as people I know and root for, and now I’m rooting for Marian Crotty, a compelling and important new voice among us. What Counts as Love is a superb and truly moving collection.”
“Marian Crotty’s stories are never imprecise. Instead, they bring us a world that is described exactly, down to the smallest details, and their headlong pace keeps us reading breathlessly. She writes about desperadoes of love, caught in moments when desperation may require uncommon bravery. I found this book to be truthful and amazing. It is a beautiful collection.”
“In this riveting debut, Marian Crotty’s characters illuminate the improbably beautiful space between knowing exactly what’s wrong and being powerless to fix it.”