I apologize for the lapse in blog postings. I’ve been so busy finishing my second novel (now officially titled CLEAN. Yay!), starting my third novel, going back to work on the edits for CLEAN, being ridiculously busy at my day job, plus trying to have some fun in the gorgeous Oakland summer. I feel like I have a lot to tell you, but I still can’t formulate my thoughts enough for a meaningful blog post. In the meantime, I thought I’d share with you something from the past.
“Under the Wall” is a short story I published in Fiction Magazine in 2006. I had already published a short non-fiction piece in the sadly retired Bay Area journal Kitchen Sink, but my good friend was one of the editors so it kind of felt like it didn’t count. Getting my first story published in such a prestigious journal as Fiction (I share the issue with Joyce Carol Oates, for cripes sake) pretty much blew my mind. I finally made it! I could now tell people I was a writer without feeling like a liar (not true, by the way. I still feel like I’m lying when I tell people I’m a writer, even with a novel published).
This story is also where BEAUTIFUL was born. You may recognize some passages in the story that I repeated verbatim in the novel. I realized quickly a short story was not enough to contain this story–it had to be a novel. This publication, in a roundabout way, is also what ended up landing me an agent. That’s a long story–perhaps a good subject for my next blog post?
I hope you like it.
Under the Wall
“You’re bad, aren’t you?” is what the boy with the glasses and the always-runny nose said.
“What’re you talking about?” is what I said.
What I didn’t say was, “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m in this gifted class, aren’t I? I’m in seventh grade and reading Dostoyevsky and I’ve got an IQ of 156, don’t I?” But that didn’t matter. There was talk. There was talk about the boy with the mohawk that used to hang around the parking lot, that used to drive me away after school. There was the green-haired girl in the other classes, the normal classes, the kids we weren’t supposed to talk to, the mohawk boy’s sister. She talked to me first. That’s how it went. Then she brought me to him. We talked. We did other things. That’s how it went.
The green-haired girl gave me a lighter and said, “Burn it.”
I did what she said, burn it: the photos, all the photos, the photos of my friends that were not her, the ones from the place that was not here, all crumpled paper in the ceramic bowl I found by the train tracks, all crumpled paper that would soon burn.
“Forget them,” she said. “They are not your friends.”
“They are not my friends,” I agreed.
They were far away, over water, through trees. They did not have green hair. They wore penny loafers and pink sweaters. They were not her. There were not my friends. She was. The green-haired girl was. She was my only friend.
“You’re bad, aren’t you?”
and I had to say, “What do you mean?”
and the boy with the glasses and always-runny nose said, “I mean, do you do drugs?”
and I said, “Do you want some?”
and he said, “No, I have some.”
They were my drugs now, his donation.
I lit the bowl and they melted before they burned, the pictures melted before the smoke detector went off and we blamed it on candles. My not-friends were thrown out the window before my mother came in sniffing around. Only when something was burning did she come in sniffing around. My not-friends’ charred remains littered the ground and were extinguished by morning sprinklers, were picked up by the maintenance man and put in a trash bag put in a dumpster put in a landfill and the green-haired girl said “Let’s get some acid”
and I said, “Okay.”
I said okay even though I didn’t know what acid was. I said okay because I didn’t want to burn anything.
“Do you have any money?” she said.
I did. We went.
The boy with the glasses and the always runny nose sat by me on the bus, sat too close to me on the bus, put his backpack on the seat on the other side so he’d have to sit close. He could have put it on the floor. My backpack was on the floor. His backpack made his leg touch mine, made his mildew-smelling coat touch my shoulder, my arm, my hand.
“Did you know Bill Gates lives just over there?” He pointed to the lake and his arm brushed against my breast. He pointed past the marina, past the bridge that went to Mercer Island, that went to Seattle.
“Fuck Bill Gates,” I said.
“Why are you riding the bus?” he said.
“Because I’m going to school.”
“What about that guy who gives you rides?”
“He does not give me rides any more.”
I also wanted to tell him, “Bad girls don’t ride the bus. Look, bad girls don’t ride the bus.”
The guy with the rat said he wouldn’t charge us if he could watch us fool around. “I’m not a dyke” is what the green-haired girl said. It was not her money. We bought six hits, strong ones, two for her and two for me, two to share later that we would not share later. Two weeks of my allowance and I lived in an apartment by the train tracks and she lived in a mansion on the lake. Two weeks of my allowance became spit wad in my mouth, in hers, in her brother’s that should have been ours. I bought cigarettes. I bought cigarettes at the store with the man with pimples who was always reading Playboy, not reading, looking, looking at the pictures and chewing his gum and saying
“What can I get you, baby?”
and I had to be baby because I was the prettiest. The green-haired girl was not pretty. I was pretty. The boys called me pretty. I was never pretty before. I was pretty now. I would not be pretty later.
Pink Floyd wall painting just like the album cover. It looks professional. He did not do it. His parents must have hired someone. The boy with the mohawk’s parents. The green-haired girl’s parents. The parents who were not here, were not sniffing around.
The rest of the floor is dark, his floor, his entire floor. I can make out a ping-pong table. My feet feel expensive carpet. My fingers do not feel a light switch. He told us not to go upstairs. He already slapped my hand for handling the cheese, the fascinating cheese with names in different languages and color splotches I learned later were mold. He made us leave the kitchen. He made us go downstairs. It was fascinating because I was on acid. He was not yet on acid. The tab was still on his tongue, dissolving, tasting like spit wad. It was my acid. But he kissed me and I gave it to him. He kissed me and I gave it to him.
Normal classes sat in rows. Gifted classes sat in circles.
“You be Juliet and I’ll be Romeo,” said the boy with the glasses and always-runny nose. He was already turned to the page with the kissing.
I said, “You be Tybalt and I’ll be Mercutio.”
“But Mercutio dies,” he said.
“And you kill me,” I said.
I’m twelve and I’m on acid. He’s seventeen and he will be on acid soon. I’m on his bed and under The Wall and listening to Pink Floyd and he said something about The Wizard of Oz but I wasn’t listening. I was looking at his stereo, the real kind, with different levels stacked on top of each other and blinking lights—green, red—and speakers as big as I am, playing Pink Floyd and reminding me of snow.
Behind the gym is where we met. That is where the boy with the glasses and the always-runny nose and the mildew-smelling coat gave me his medicine and asked for nothing back. His own bottle back home was filled with aspirin. He took two aspirin every day and pretended it was Ritalin. I took four Ritalin every other day and pretended it was nothing, then every day, then six, then eight, then I couldn’t keep track, and his parents did not think of sniffing around, did not think of noticing that the refill intervals became shorter and shorter and they were running out of Aspirin.
They’re all in the other room: the green-haired girl, the mohawk boy’s sister, my best friend, my friend who brought me to him. The boys, the older boys, the boys I don’t know but seem to know me. He told them to go in the other room. He told them we needed to talk. They laughed and I laughed and I didn’t know what I was laughing at but it was laughter and it felt better than the slap on my hand and the smell of the cheese and the cold steel refrigerator and the kitchen that was never cooked in. And the carpet felt good on my feet. I wanted to take off my socks and let my toes feel it. He said there were more important things to feel.
“Is there anything else you want?” I said. We were behind the gym where we were every other Monday at lunch, where he gave me his pills and I gave him the part of my lunch I did not like and let him talk about computers and microchips and Bill Gates.
I said, “Is there anything else you want?” just as he was explaining the basics of nanotechnology, which he already explained at our last meeting, and when he got excited, little bubbles of drool emerged from the sides of his mouth and they were there now, holding on to his grey skin with surface tension or some other scientific principle he could have explained to me, and I almost said “explain the scientific principle that makes your drool bubbles hold on to your skin,” but I didn’t. Instead I said, “Is there anything else you want?” which made him stop talking about nanotechnology and contemplate for a moment what I might have been suggesting. He blushed, which made his pimples seem extra greasy and extra erupting and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and the drool bubbles were gone and he looked at me with his squinty eyes and no eyelashes small head and leaned over and whispered. He leaned over and whispered even though there was nobody around, just me and him and the memory of drool bubbles and pills in my pocket and erection in his.
There’s a mouth on mine and teeth scraping and I’m thinking of cheese, I’m thinking of why does expensive cheese stink, and I’m thinking of my armpits that I haven’t shaven, shaved, shaven, and they are stubbly and he’s touching them with his big hands, much bigger than my breasts, much warmer than anything on my body. And the sound of a zipper unzipping, and the sound of Pink Floyd and I’m thinking of snow, I’m thinking of driving fast through it, nothing but white shiny sometimes texture, texture that shifts and cackles because the sky is cloudy and the shadows are weird and lying and I’m wearing a white cotton bra that is not a bad girl bra. He laughs at my bra. He says, “is this a training bra?” and I look at the lights—red, green—and they tell me nothing about what I should answer. So I shrug. I shrug as well as I can shrug with his body on top of mine and my right arm under his hot hand and my left arm not wanting to move at all and my shoulders, my shoulders cold and shuddering under Pink Floyd snow.
The boy with the glasses and always-runny nose leaned over and whispered, “I want to touch you. I want to touch you down there.”
“Okay,” I said, relieved it wasn’t anything long-term or involving money.
He was shaking and he flinched at the sound of the zipper. He flinched when I grabbed his wrist and led it down, down into the white cotton bad girls did not wear. He let his hand lay there for a while, not moving at all, and his eyes were closed and his nostrils flared with heavy, wheezy, snotty breaths and I wanted to slap him. “Just do it,” I wanted to say. I wanted to slap him.
“You are so pretty,” he said.
“Fuck pretty,” I said.
The mohawk boy says, “Aren’t you going to spend the night?”
His room is dark and the room outside is dark and I can’t see the ping pong table but I know it is there. I know the leather couch is there, full of bodies. I know the girl with the green hair is somewhere under those bodies.
She says “Aren’t you going to spend the night?”
They say, “Yeah,”
and I say nothing, just walk out the sliding glass door that doesn’t slide so good and across the green lawn that would have felt good on naked feet, to the marina and through the shadows of masts of sailboats. The bench isn’t comfortable. The bathroom is closed. The lake is pock marked with little tsunamis. Bells ring. Sea gulls sleep.
His fingers moved a little. He stopped breathing. His face was red and still and he smelled like mildew, like eggs and toast, like computers, and the bell rang, and I wanted to slap him even more, not just slap but punch and kick and bite until he bled and jump on his ribs until they were all broken, and his eyes shot open and he took back his hand and ran off without his backpack, holding his hand to his chest as if it were broken, running like a boy with asthma runs, trailing dirty boy smells behind him, smells of mildew, smells of something musty from myself.
I run up the hill away from the lake, past the rows of three-car garages, past the store with the man who says “baby,” past so many red and green lights. I run home to the apartment by the train tracks, darker even than the mansion by the lake. There are no bodies on leather couches, no smelly cheeses, no kitchens from magazines, no ping-pong tables, no Pink Floyd or commissioned wall paintings. There is only black air and black shapes that make no sound. There is only my room and the still open window and the ceramic bowl in the foliage below. There are only my not-friends melted and burned and scattered in black. There is my bed and my desk and my clothes and my books and letters from the green-haired girl still creased from elaborate foldings.
There is another room, a foreign room, a room with a couch and a box of tissues, a room with a woman whose name I don’t know, a woman who makes money listening to me breathe. It is a room more silent than the dark room I know. It is the room that takes me, an hour at a time, after my mother comes in sniffing around.
There are unshaven hairs sticking through nylons. There is a mouth moving. It is not mine. It is an old mouth. It is trying to smile. It does not do it well. My mouth does not move. Little brain-sized ticker tape goes too fast, written in Cyrillic, hieroglyphics, kanji, cuneiform. Smoke writes phrases backwards and poof, all the time, poof, poof, gone. I cannot read. Or speak. I cannot speak. And the old mouth with thin lips keeps saying:
“How do you feel about that?
How does that make you feel?
How are you feeling?”
and I keep saying “fine”
because I do feel fine.
I feel nothing and that feels fine.
I see lint, I see the corner where paint bleeds into molding, I see dead flies in the overhead light, I see unshaven hairs sticking through nylons and wool skirt and silk shirt and tiny gold cross in flabby chest cavity. I see the clock above the old mouth’s head, the cheap thought bubble that expresses nothing but seconds, minutes, hours. Not days, not lifetimes, not smoke words, smoke sentences, paragraphs, pages, volumes,
reams of parchment,
Hi – This is great. I’ve heard a lot about Beautiful and just ordered it (finally). Am always interested in seeing the origins of things. I used to write short stories before YA – always with young protags, so myabe I was grooming myself without even knowing it! Looking forward to reading your book 🙂