McSweeney’s Quarterly is a finalist for the 2020 National Magazine Award for Fiction. The honor recognizes three stories we’ve published this year, by Mimi Lok, Lisa Taddeo, and Ope Adedeji. In celebration, we’ve made them available online.
by Lisa Taddeo
Illustration by Fritz Lang
1. THE ONE AND ONLY
You’re in line at the hipster sandwich place on a funereal block in the Hills, and you don’t want to build your own. You could choose from one of the featured selections, but all are fattening. Pastrami is the polar opposite of Los Angeles.
You had wanted to make something yourself, avocado toast, for example, in your gleaming kitchen overlooking the Pacific. But you were out of avocados and there was only a quarter stick of butter left, which meant you couldn’t yield anything toothsome. You could have had someone bring butter by, but that would have made you feel spoiled and flabby. And even though you would have wanted Kerrygold, you would probably have said, Organic Valley or whatever, just no Land O’Lakes. And the gofer would have texted no less than twice. All they have is Breakstone’s or Horizon?
And you would have sat looking at the waves thawing on your rocky bandage of beach in abject misery, waiting no less than three minutes so that the light-brown-haired girl who was younger and smaller and poorer than you would have had to tarry there, in the refrigerated section, wearing a sleeveless shirt on a gorgeous beach day, for you to reply, Salted. Sometimes the most you could do to make yourself happy was control another being. In the end, of course, it would never work out for you. You would always, for one, be fatter than you wanted to be. Controlling other people adds about five hundred calories. A delicious tropical drink at the bar next to Nobu on the PCH has one hundred more calories if you’re trying to make your assistant pay for the fact that you are on a bad date, by texting her while she is on a good one.
In line at the sandwich shop, you open a bag of Caesar Twice-Baked Croutons. If you eat only half the bag, it will be 170 calories. There is a fly, large and slowed by the greatness of late summer, coasting low. A couple in front of you is playful. Leaning in, the young man inhales the midsection of the girl’s hair. She turns to meet his eyes, smiling. They don’t hear the fly, which is buzzing loud at ear height. When the lovemaking gaze breaks, the boy turns and notices you. At first he barely registers you, because you are not hot and his girlfriend is. And then he recognizes you. He punches his girl in the arm.
Hey! he says. Hey! It’s—You’re Ari the Ghost Lover! Right?
You feel dizzy, the crouton in your mouth the size of a nightmare. You try to chew it quietly but there is no quiet, fast way to get rid of a crouton. There is only slow disintegration.
The girlfriend widens her eyes in apparent recognition. The fly whirs past. Behind you, the sooty screen door opens and shuts and you take the opportunity to turn your head in its direction, and chomp the crouton.
Oh my god, says the girl. It’s you!
You turn back to them. Flecks of dried parsley on your lips. She wears a sleeveless Cure shirt without a bra, and her side-boob slaloms around Robert Smith’s ear. Her shoulders are smooth and round. She is twenty-five. You were never twenty-five.
You’re the reason my best friend is getting married to, like, the guy of her dreams! says the girl.
The boy smirks. Luke is the guy of her dreams?
The girl punches him and rolls her eyes. They both turn to you.
No shit! We’re going to their wedding in, like, two months! It’s all because of you!
You smile, though you don’t mean to. You imagine the girl’s best friend is probably a Tier III customer. Although this could have come just from watching your show. It is the only self-help show that has ever been binge-watched, on Netflix. This is something Jennifer, your PR girl, says more often than she says her own name.
Oh my god, Pandora is going to shit herself when we tell her we met you!
The boy, by now, has lost interest. He is scraping the meat of the girl’s waist with his fingernails. Her black jeans are low-waisted. Her hip bone is a seat belt. All he wants to do is fuck her. You are more adept at reading this, you know, than anybody in the whole world.
You are amazing. You are, like, my hero.
You nod. You resolved a week ago to stop saying thank you. To be icier in general. The decision was made on a day that your sliding door was open to your balcony and a strange bird whined in the distance. The noise of him made you want to pluck his eyes out, and your own. On that day you were the furthest from God you had ever been. You’d never believed in him, but on that day you could feel the whole ocean freeze. You felt your toes go bloodless. That was the day the card arrived, sailing forth over the tender shoots.
Can I—can we, like, get your autograph, I don’t know, or something?
The boy doesn’t care, not at all. The fact that the girl cares more about meeting you than she cares about her boyfriend in this moment makes you hate her very much, for having that power. She is lucky. A blind providence afforded her at birth, by how big her eyes are and how tall her cheekbones. At home the screen door is off its track. There is no one you can ask to fix this. There is someone, but you can’t ask him to fix it yet. You know it is too soon. That it always will be.
Next, can I help you! the sandwich guy yells.
It’s Sunday, which for you is a whale’s throat. Blue-black and forever. People always write and call you on Monday mornings, at 10:27, when you are the busiest. On Sunday, almost never. Not even the old high-school friends whose husbands have a rare form of cancer, and who are looking for a handout. Even those people are too full in their lives to ping you on a Sunday.
The girl and the boy turn to the sandwich guy. Uh, one roast pork banh mi and one TOAO grilled cheese, says the boy.
You remember the first time you came here, and it was with him. He showed you LA like he was opening a sunlit door through his chest. His sandwich place. Scummy but redolent with the smell of half-cooked bread, on a hill over the highway, canopied by trees. The bottles of wine inside, for sale. You could go home with a bottle of wine, and sandwiches.
No tomatoes on the grilled cheese, the girl whispers, tugging at the boy’s soft gray shirt.
No tomatoes on The One And Only, he says to the sandwich guy, who nods.
Twenty even, the sandwich guy says. The boy pulls a twenty out of his pocket. It looks like the last twenty on earth, and your heart breaks a little more, when into the boy’s shoulder blade the girl whispers, Thank you.
2. THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
On the way to the Country Mart, you dial the temperature down to sixty, and draw the flow to the max. Within seconds your face is chilled like a tumbler of milk. You used to worry about how much gasoline the air conditioning was using. Now you don’t anymore. When your cheeks are cold, they feel thinner.
It has been almost two years now. In two years you have become something utterly different from what you were, at least to the wider world. It didn’t know you at all before, and now almost everyone does. This is a crazy feeling. Men in Titleist hats and flaccid golf shirts know who you are, because their daughters do. Because your face is all over the place. You are rich. That word! You bought a house in Malibu. On stilts, with one of those driveways, right off the PCH. You used to say, This is not so great. This is Malibu? And Nick would say, You have no idea, the other side. And one day he took you to walk along the other side, over the rocks along the breathing water, and you could see the decks and the real fronts of the houses. The fronts were facing the ocean! The other side, the highway side: that was the back. When you were on the ocean side, you understood how much more these people knew than you did, had than you did. He held your hand over the sharp rocks. You don’t remember wanting more then, but you must have.
Your house is an A-frame. You lied to your best friend about how much it cost, because you felt bad paying for the place in cash when she was struggling, with two jobs, to pay off her nursing school loans. There is a terrific white bathroom on the topmost floor. A claw-foot bathtub, with golden spigots, overlooking the water. Heaven-white towels on teak rods and a bar of soap on the teak stool. Vetiver with French green clay, still wrapped in its furred paper.
You are on your way to the Country Mart right now, for an iced matcha latte and to buy clothes at the sorts of prices that still beguile you. You can spend over two thousand dollars on a sheer blouse that still requires something to go underneath it. The less one’s body is perfect, the more it needs expensive garments, heavy crepes to position themselves like aid workers across the fault lines.
Still, the old ways cling. The soap in your bathroom is an eighteen-dollar bar. You refuse to use it until you have lost at least five pounds.
The idea for Ghost Lover came, sorely, from Nick. Or, rather, from the dissolution of Nick and you. There was an insolvency. The opposite of an impalement. You defecated your soul, is how you marked it at the time, in less refined language, across the pages of your journal. You mourned for months and then you sat in coffee shops and strategized. At first you planned to get him back. There was one coffee shop in particular, on La Cienega, a place untouched by him, someplace he never would have noted. It wasn’t precious enough, or clean. There were no whole Arabica beans for sale. There was a fifty-something lady who worked in the kitchen there, and she also came around and tidied up the packets of sugar substitute and hand-swept the milk counter. At first you hated the grunts she made. You hated how shapeless her butt was and how noisy her shoes were. You hated the way she stalked behind you, her toes at your heels like dominos. You were sure that, even though she did not seem to speak English, she was reading the words on your laptop. Your journal entries. Then one day, as she mopped around your chair, she placed her hand on your shoulder. Hallowed, like a mother or a priest. It wholed you. You turned, and her ancient eyes absorbed your depth.
Just like that, everything settled. And you thought, I am fine. I will send him a note. It was his birthday. You wrote, Happy Birthday. Sending the words across the avenues of code, you felt like a queen of love. Seven minutes later he replied, Thx!
A week later, Nick walked into your coffee shop. With a girl. A definitive girl, about a decade younger. You passed gas when you saw him. The girl turned in the direction of the sound, and found you. Her face bloomed rose with compassion. He didn’t seem to have heard. And she didn’t know who you were; she didn’t know how once Nick ate you out in your mother’s house while Karl, the husband of hers who used to violate you, listened from downstairs.
Importantly, Nick hadn’t noticed you, so you ran out, without your computer or your pile of books. You sweated around a corner until they left, in her car, which was sporty and black. This made you feel sick. Something about him being in a girl’s car. Listening to her young music. When you went back in, the woman was standing by your table, protecting your stuff with her shadow. She nodded at you. You wanted to cry. You knew you would not come back, would never see her again. These tiny endings are all over the place.
Ghost Lover came easily from there, ideas borne from pain the way moths go to light. You quit your job as the second assistant to a midlevel celebrity. A job you had gotten only to have a reason to be in LA, with him. You began sleeping during the days, through iced drinks in fraternal sunlight and blondes in bathing suits playing volleyball. You’d go out only at night. Sit in Chez Jay, which had been his but which you had stolen. You felt the greasy luxe of being somewhere you shouldn’t. The creepiness of lying in wait. You listened. Girls with text messages, mainly. How to respond to this one or that one. They didn’t know anything. They were young and pointless. But you felt for them, or, rather, you felt for the pain in them. Or no. Your pain felt a kinship to their pain, and at the time you had to be wherever your pain was. It was the only thing that was real.
One night there you ran into an old friend of yours from home, who was pursuing an accelerated MBA in Long Beach and cheating on his girlfriend nearly every weekend. You continued on to drinks and food at Father’s Office. The sweetness of the burger was pink and wrong on your tongue. You sensed he just wanted a place to sleep over in LA. But he was useful, like many ancillary characters; you didn’t realize how much, until later. He said the only thing you actually learn in business school is “identify a problem in the marketplace and create a solution.”
That night you ingested over 2,500 calories, at the bar and later at home. You took an Ambien and wrote a business plan until the words melted across the screen. You slept with the friend in business school the next weekend. He felt like a soft iron inside of you, something plain and graceless. The dumb pain of simple rod sex. You did not come. He ejaculated largely inside your belly button. The fatty pool of it.
Several weeks later, with this friend’s help, you created the application. A forwarding system for text messages so that an expert would respond (or not respond) to a client’s crush. The client would be briefed as needed, would otherwise enjoy holy ignorance. A way for girls, mainly, to be the coolest versions of themselves, inoculated in practice against their desire.
At first the expert was only you. You, thinking of how Nick himself would respond to a text. How the young and beautiful girls he was newly with would respond to the texts of grunting men. Quickly, your team grew. You hired small, stunning girls. You always brought on women you imagined him wanting. One of the reasons was for the angry throb it drew from your pelvis. Another was so that you would never invite him back into your life. You could not, feasibly, because there were too many limbs for you to be jealous of. All that superlative hair, all those surfing thighs.
3. BEAUTIFUL WITHOUT LOOKING LIKE YOU’RE TRYING
There are the girls who please girls, and the girls who please boys. Girls who please girls, even at thirteen—what they do is they blow a boy not to make the boy like them but to go back and report to their girls. The taste and flavor, checking a box. You were in the second group. You always fell hard for boys. Each one was his own fairy tale. One therapist said you got this from observing your mother. Another said it was a by-product of your father’s death.
Right now there is one, Jeff. He is a photographer. You have been bringing him to parties. Events that require bow ties. He is always perfumed and ready on time. You know who was never ready on time.
You’re at the Country Mart to buy a dress for one such event, at the Getty Villa tonight. You come here because you cannot stomach downtown LA. Rodeo, with its chalky sunlight. And the malls are out of the question. You have grown past the malls. Your tastes have become ultra-refined. You are hopeful today about Morgane Le Fay. You are imagining something breezy and decently transparent.
With this new one you are more worried than usual. Jeff has acquired some gentle fame via you. You suggested him as the photographer for your Elle shoot. He didn’t want to do the lighting their way, and then he did. Since then, he has booked gigs for Vogue and Esquire. You heard him on the phone with a girl from W, negotiating and charming. Jennifer, your publicist, called him “hot” to both your faces. This was vaguely unforgivable, but you forgave it. Privately, to you, and early on enough that she could pretend it never happened, she questioned his motives. You met him on a site for people with more than ten thousand Twitter followers. Either you were hot or you had a certain number of Twitter followers. You were in the latter group. He was in the first.
In the store a salesgirl recognizes you. Even in your sunglasses and Bruins hat. You have a pug nose. It is unmistakable. To be recurrently recognized for an element of unattractiveness is a scorching feeling. It makes you want to punish every brown-haired beauty in your path.
Jennifer is the other reason you are doggedly spotted. She is better at her job than anyone you have ever met. It’s mostly accidental. Like all huge successes, she had a few dead-on things happen and now she merely capitalizes on her reputation.
Are you… Wow. It’s you.
You don’t even nod at her. Sometimes when you eat too much at lunch you need to be cruel to a salesgirl. You finger a flowing cream dress. She offers to start a fitting room for the zero items you have in your hand.
She says a few more things, platitudes both empty and necessary, but when she asks if you are looking for anything special, you snap.
No, in fact. I’m looking for something really un-special. Tell me. What is the least special thing you have in the store?
Back outside, you close your eyes against the sun and smush your temples. Oh, the indignity of Sunday!
You open your eyes and send Jennifer a quick text.
I was a mild bitch at Morgane Le Fay.
Montana or Malibu? Customer or salesgirl?
Latters, you write. This is how good you are at your job. You are a clinician of the text. You can eviscerate, palpate, abrogate with a mild word, combined with cunning punctuation. You want Jennifer to have to ask someone what you mean. You want her to feel dumb, undeserving. Like the PR girl that she is. Lest she mistake her thinness for value.
Having bought nothing, you walk back to the car. The sandy mountains in the distance used to confound you. On the one hand, they looked like nature and wild, but then all these boat-shaped villas had wedged themselves into the more hospitable rocks. The houses appeared white and dirty from below, but they were all gated. Nobody used the land they owned. There were horses, but they were dry and hot. The hills of Los Angeles used to confound you, but now you’ve been to parties in those neglected palaces. You have seen swimming pools used as swan ponds and naked-man ponds. You have seen swimming pools that have never been filled with water. When you are inside the mountains, you realize they are not mountains but placeholders.
You wake up your car and use the key to turn on the AC before you get in. You will wear the red dress that Nick bought you at that consignment shop in Cambridge. All these years later, all these diets later, you are still mostly the same size. If only people knew how much work went into your weight. The fluctuations in your mind rocket and plunge like an ambitious water slide. Your relationship with your refrigerator has given the cat an anxiety disorder. But on your body the movements are razor bumps.
Anyway, the dress still fits; it’s the only one in which you have ever felt effortlessly beautiful.
You will be accepting an award tonight, to become the third annual Golda Meir Ambassador for Women. You have a speech to deliver to a room of very important people. At first you were going to talk about coming from mostly nothing into a lot of something. Nothing anybody hadn’t heard before. You were embarrassed by the banality, but you are so starlit right now that it doesn’t matter, not even to you.
Then the card arrived. And your bowels released themselves, meltingly, like a spoon of honey submerged in tea.
You took a long eucalyptic bath. You changed your speech completely.
4. THE OLD PLACE WITH THE NEW GUY
You are meeting Jeff for drinks, before the awards. For his thirty-third birthday, last month, you bought him a heritage-green Triumph and he loves riding it through the canyons. Lately he has suggested meeting you out, instead of driving with you. You told him you didn’t mind the motorcycle, that you weren’t scared. But he said he was, about being a novice and getting you hurt. Anyway, tonight it’s a moot point, because of your hair and the wind, and your dress.
The Old Place is another place Nick took you. It was the week you first visited, when you staked your claim. You expressed sadness about the oceans of macadam and the squat buildings. You’d imagined all of Los Angeles was like one or two streets in Beverly Hills, palm-lined and arugula-grassed. Nick said, Los Angeles is not what anybody thinks it is, before they get here. That’s because it doesn’t actually exist. You have to make your own LA.
Then he took you to the Old Place in his Subaru. It was terrific. A remote, weedy heaven, a warty barn with antlers on the front and horseshoes inside and oil lamps and carved-up wooden tables. It looked like Wyoming and yet there was a Spanish-style villa just around the bend, and a constellation of Teslas. Inside, you shared a charcuterie board and counted your quarters. Your waitress, who was beautiful, didn’t scare you. You and he were still only friends then. It was a year after college. The Boston years, he used to say; one year on from Boston.
But even then, it was bigger for you. In your journals, there is a red star sticker on the night you met. It was the spring of your junior year and the cops had just busted a party at the Towers. You held a Solo cup in your hand that you didn’t know what to do with.
Nick had met you earlier at the keg. He’d pumped and poured one for you, asking if you liked head. Your eyes widened. On your beer, he said.
As the cops squared their hips at you, he assessed your predicament, ripped off his shirt, and bared his chest to them, like Tarzan. It’s easy for beautiful people to disrobe and cause this sort of diversion. In any case, you fell for an act of humanity in someone hot.
Jeff, who has become Jeffrey lately in his magazine work, texts that he is leaving now, ten minutes before you are supposed to meet. It will take him forty minutes to come from his studio downtown. He has a drawer at your place, and will sleep over. In the morning he’ll go for a run on the beach, and return shirtless. He always leaves a neutral James Perse hanging from the point of a certain rock. He is like an actor in some ways. You’ll have showered and applied an invisible amount of makeup and made fresh cashew milk. He’ll come in and press his waist to yours and kiss you on the cheek, and you’ll want him again. But he always has to go. He is always working, unless there is an event.
It’s four when you get there. You choose the same table from nearly a decade ago. A waitress comes by, in her fifties and pockmarked. You order a vodka soda and scan the menu for something with less than a hundred calories. There are no oysters. No ceviche. The better the atmosphere of a bar, especially one in the woods, the more fried the food will be.
You check Jeff’s Instagram, because sometimes he will take a picture of somewhere you don’t even know he is. His account is a mix of scenic, foggy photographs—glassy bodies of water and tall trees in sunlight—and selfies of you and him, at awards shows and on private jets and in Cannes and in the Côte d’Azur. There is one picture that makes you die. You and him at Alexander McQueen, during New York Fashion Week. You are in a purple dress that Jennifer said made you look like a goddess. He is tan and his face is weak but still undeniably handsome. Someone neither of you knew commented, Still Life of Photographer, and a Sausage in Balmain.
You asked him to make his account private that night. Of course, he said. You asked him again in the morning.
Nine years ago, at this very table, you told Nick about Karl. Karl wore glasses and had slick, curly hair and oh, how your mother loved him.
You told Nick all of it. How you made the fucker pay, literally, for every transgression. For the time that he fingered you in the hallway when you were coming out of the shower in your Kensie Girl robe, you used his credit card to buy a pair of Prada sunglasses. When he placed your hand over his dick under the table while your mom sat directly across from you? You bought your gay friend Bobby a dinner jacket.
You didn’t tell Nick about Karl to get it off your chest. You told him about Karl so that he might love you.
Jeff comes in, helmet in hand. He smiles at the bartender and quizzes the empty room. He sees you, and then he finds you.
Babe, he says, kissing you across the table.
Hey, you say flatly. You have perfected austerity at surprising moments. It keeps people feeling like they have wronged you, and thinking they need to overcompensate.
You look unbelievable.
Are you all set? Any nerves I can tend to? Do they have a teleprompter, or are you going off the cuff?
Off the cuff.
You are a beast.
I need to tell you about what I’m going to say.
Give it to me, he says, waggling his finger for the waitress. He is obsequiously polite with waitstaff, yet also urgent.
It’s about my ex.
Whoa, he says.
It’s about how my ex raped me.
Jeff is the starched breed of new man. He has ridden horses in Texas like a cowboy but the word rape gives him menstrual cramps. He doesn’t know the most politically correct way to handle this. Mostly, he does not act from his heart.
He gasps. The waitress comes around and he is too ruffled to order his drink. He shakes his head. You order it for him.
He’ll have a vodka grapefruit, you say.
Absolut okay? she says.
Grey Goose, he whispers. To you, he says, What do you mean?
You inhale deeply. It’s a complex thing, you say, like all these things are. We were together for a long time. We were very much in love. He was definitely forceful. Arguments we got into. But otherwise, no red flags. He was—I thought he was a good guy.
Jeff nods and shakes his head. Riveted.
You tell him about the night you intend to discuss in your speech. You and Nick were both on mushrooms, but he was unused to psychedelics. He was a beer guy. Your friend Bobby had mailed them to you, for your birthday. With Karl’s Amex you paid for a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. You and Nick went out and had drinks at Slumulous with a bunch of his friends because you didn’t have your own yet. He didn’t want to take the mushrooms, but it was your birthday and you insisted.
Nine years ago, at this table, when you told Nick about Karl, he said he was going to kill him. Please, you said, crying. Please, it’s over. I just need—
What? Nick was pissed.
You wanted to say, I just need you. Instead you let the pain cramp your features.
Jeff reaches his smooth hand across the table to hold yours. You are steady and alpha and also afraid that you look ugly.
At some point, in the middle of the night, he climbed on top of me. He was a big guy. Not fat, just. Very broad, and toned and muscular. He got on top of me and sort of ripped my underwear to the side, like stretched them out. Sorry. Then he started, like, pumping away. Like he was trying to core me.
Oh my god.
I mean, it woke me up. And I knew. I knew he was fucked-up. Like, he didn’t even know what he was doing. I don’t think. It was over before I could even stop it. I don’t know how to describe that.
No, I get it.
Of course you do.
Back when, Nick had said, Tell me what the fucker looks like. This was before old people had Facebook. No, you said. I don’t know. He’s. He looks like someone you wouldn’t think was capable. Of doing that.
When Jeff comes inside of a condom inside of you, you can feel his medium-sized penis begin to contract long before his orgasm has crested. Something tells you this wouldn’t happen to him with a hooker. The waitress brings his drink and places it far enough from his hand that he needs to reach, in the middle of you speaking.
I think it’s important, you say, to tell these women tonight. They deserve to know. I think it will help them come forward with their own experiences. Every woman has an experience like this. At least one.
Jeff nods expansively.
I wanted to prepare you. I know that it might be uncomfortable.
No, Ari. I am here for you. I am here for whatever you need and. I just can’t believe this happened to you. That you have been living with this. Secret.
The way Nick responded about Karl was wild and bucking. It made you feel like a flamenco dancer, like a woman worthy of killing for.
You sip your drink until it is gone. Jeff orders another because it is all just too much, this information, this evening. The waitress seems to know to bring you the bill. That always happens lately.
5. BECAUSE THE NIGHT
The outdoor theater at the Getty is half-Shakespearean, half–dingy Malibu. Accordingly, you feel tan and legitimate. The vodka soda on an empty stomach was one hair thicker than the perfect amount of inebriation, which is actually even more perfect. You have always been able to alchemize a wrong into a positive. It’s one of the ways you got here.
Even the card last week. Especially the card. You are about to turn it on its head.
The bar is still being set up and only the important people are here. You, the First Lady, the other speakers, the editors of the major women’s magazines, the president of the International Council of Women. Jeff is very good at being unobtrusive. He is not one of those boyfriends who stand in your limelight. He always positions himself just off to the side, so that the glow strikes him well. Cameras always wonder who he is that way; they crane, and he smiles.
Ari, you look gorgeous! says the editor in chief of W. Her dress is spangled and violent. Elvira shoulders, St. Pauli Girl décolletage. Rhinestones in the shape of matadors.
You hate when people say, You look beautiful. That is cruel. Tonight, with that dress and the professional hair and makeup, you nearly pass for one of us. We are proud of you. Welcome, and here is some mesclun.
You are the second-most important person here tonight. You radiate the consummate mix of celebrity and public service required to achieve American glory. You are at the height of your likability. It is minute by minute, of course, but nobody wants to tear you down yet. The denouement will come, yes, but then you can abscond to Greece, Lithuania. You can kill yourself.
But for now, you have arrived. Look at that theater! Soon it will be stocked with broken women in four-hundred-dollar dresses and ten-thousand-dollar jumpsuits. The socioeconomic gamut of coastal American style. You see a woman compensating for acne with a short beige dress. She has nice legs but will never shake the agony of her skin. She is your sister but you have risen above her. You had lain in wait, a snake in the grass, planning for this. To be huge. You didn’t think it would be about him. You were over it, you said to no one. But you are not. If there had been any doubt that you were still in the undertow, all doubt was expelled Monday morning.
It was classy, of course, because he was elegantly simple and probably the girl is too. Brown like a bear. Heavy stock. Raised white letters. “Save the Night.”
Not a whole thing, no churches and bearers and limousines. Just a band, drinks, the people they love.
The people we love.
As though you were friends. Yes, you have kept in touch like friends throughout the years. He’d gone back to Boston and you liked him there. He was safe from blondes in bikinis. From salesgirls in white jeans and baristas in T-strap tank tops. He congratulated you on every milestone, the first time you appeared on Friedkin, and on the cover of Wired. Of course he was even more excited to see you on the cover of Boston Magazine. He texted you a picture of it, magnetized to his fridge. You felt warm in your belly that day, eating only kale and apples.
You saw him as recently as eighteen months ago, when you went home for Karl’s funeral. Karl got hit by a car, outside the bar he went to every Thursday with the boys. You were thrilled, but not for the reasons one might think.
For the wake your mother wore her hair in a strangling bun, and the blackest dress you had ever seen. You never told her about Karl. She either knew or she didn’t. Anyway, you knew what would happen if the information came from you. You remembered with baleful clarity the trip you took to Destin, just you and her, months after your father died and right before Karl. You were twelve; you hated your hair and had a sickening crush on Douglas Greenway. At the pool of your dated motel, your mother lay on a chaise longue, in an emerald bathing suit and big sunglasses, keeping her body straight and tight in a way you had never seen. You sat at the corner of her chair, blue, but not blocking her sun.
What is it? she said.
You missed your father but sensed you shouldn’t say this. You also missed the boy. He didn’t love you, yet. But you felt you deserved something. You knew people so deeply.
I was just. Missing Douglas.
Does he even like you? said your mother. You understood she was not looking at you, even though she was wearing sunglasses.
I don’t know, you told her honestly. He went to the movies with Amber and her mom last week.
You were deaf from the pool water. You’d spent the morning doing leg lifts in the shallow end. Then handstands and hoping your legs looked nice, at twelve. It was 3:00 p.m. and you were thinking how long it would be until bedtime, and dreading the darkness at the same time. Florida was all pink clamshells and depression, malls with skylights and surplus palms. Old people, jobless and white. Plus, you were in the worst part of it. This motel, this town, not-Miami. A polyp on a turd. The blue of the pool was a cheap blue. It had a urine cast. The sun here was cheap too.
Your mother inhaled through her nose. She’d been drinking Bloody Marys since noon. This last one had stretched itself into peppery red water. The ice was melted. The celery looked warm.
I hope you never have a boy, she said, finally. You’ll be jealous of his babysitters.
Nick called the day you landed. He wouldn’t come to the funeral, but he asked you to Fisherman’s Feast. This was right before you’d shot up to intergalactic level, before you’d reached ten thousand followers. You had a nice tan, wore a Cubs hat, and remembered when merely walking through aisles of fried dough with frizzy hair and a boyfriend was enough. He looked dreamy and broad, and cozy like pizzerias in October. And you thought, This could be forever. We could have a child, and Septembers.
Tripe, yelled a busker. Just got here!
Nick said, Can we get two pounds, rare?
You wrinkled your nose and he ran away. The busker stared at you, presenting a length of tender blond loofah.
You caught up to him and punched his arm. It was hard and present. You remembered the first time you had cracked him. When it went from him making you laugh to him making sure he had made you laugh. Had Karl helped? Yes. Karl had helped.
Later, walking down Beacon in some bourbon-colored sunshine, you said, Why does Edible Arrangements have a storefront still?
You had been planning all day to ask him if he wanted to get dinner. You felt nervous but optimistic. You had eaten perfectly. One banana. Three snakeskin slices of turkey. But otherwise you hadn’t prepared at all.
I think that kind of hope is beautiful, he said.
He stopped walking and looked at you. He asked if you were okay. He meant about Karl. His obsession with how the Karl situation affected you was a Bruce Springsteen song.
Hey! you said. How about me and you in LA? Do you ever think about those days?
Oh, man, do I. We were fucking toxic.
But also fucking great, I think.
He laughed, shining his big neck back at the sun, and said, It’s crazy. I can’t even imagine us, you know, being intimate. I think we were always meant to be the best of friends.
He ruffled your hat. The sky turned black. You utterly lost your shit. Your face overheated. You felt round and faint. There was no way to go back in time, no way to make him unsay that thing that you could never unhear. Your guts were rivering into your bowels. You ran away from him before you shit yourself. You ran all the way home.
You ate that night with your mother, frozen shepherd’s pies, funeral cupcakes brought by women who’d never lost a soul. Karl’s empty midcentury chair at the table, everything unheated and ended.
You returned to LA in the morning, three days early. Like always, you regrouped. You ramped up the plan. Purpose bubbled like black fish in your blood.
“Become More Beautiful” you wrote at the top of the vision board.
But you couldn’t do that. So you became everything else.
Karl had left you two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Honestly, it felt worth it. It was a good price. You grew your company by 1.5. You hired Jennifer. The Netflix show came unexpectedly. A wise-voiced man rang you up and offered it, and overnight you became this sensation.
Everything was going swimmingly. There was a plan in place, both heuristic and magical. You were going to lose fifteen pounds and see Nick again over Christmas. There was a certain amount of success that would make him unable to refuse you. There was a certain weight at which he would think you were pretty.
But then last week you got the card.
You went to meet her on Facebook. She is Nick’s friend Gordon’s younger sister. Young and small and honey haired. You had heard that description of hair before, and it seemed trite. But this girl has honey hair. She graduated from Harvard—where you did not get in—just two years ago. You clicked through the available pictures. One of her in a sports bra and eggplant yoga pants. She is a runner. She likes Adidas sneakers and the Atlantic Monthly. She likes Jean-Luc Godard and George Eliot and Prince.
Honey hair. Fawn hair. She used the phrase Damascan rose in the caption of a picture. She is not funny but she is not an idiot. One of her brothers is a pilot. Both of her parents are alive.
Because she has a private profile, and because Nick is not on Facebook, you had to be crafty to find pictures of the two of them. You moused through Gordon’s girlfriend’s account. There was the golden cache. A double-date weekend to a tiny house in the woods, one of those hipster getaways. She is in big, soft, black sweatpants and his sweatshirt. She is in jeans and a plaid shirt. She is roasting a marshmallow in a black knit dress and a tartan afghan. The moon is a bone in the shape of a hole. He is looking at her in every single picture.
You masturbated to these images, to the concatenation of his newfound happiness and your old happiness, now dashed. Then, needing more, you went on YouPorn, selected the category “Romantic,” selected the sub-category “Beautiful fucking.” There you found a gorgeous honey-haired French girl in a sun-filled farmhouse slicing apples in a plaid shirt. A man comes up behind her.
After you came, you contemplated suicide in the boring, lonely way of unfulfilled, selfish women. But that was last week. You have regrouped (again!). Look at the theater!
Karl used to sweat over you. He was working so hard, he was sweating. The nervousness, it must have been. He kept his shoes on, in case your mom came home and he had to motor. So you would just concentrate on the shoes, pattering against your own naked feet. Deer-colored bucks. Like a schoolboy. Very clean, never rained upon.
Now you are going to thank the beaten and sexually abused women of the world, really all the women of the world, for this award, for your general success, which would not have been possible without them, for your belief in the collective future of womankind, and you are going to tell them what Nick did. It won’t be televised, but by the morning all the news outlets will have picked it up. You won’t name him but you will provide enough details that his community will be able to figure it out. Certainly the girl will. You don’t think about his mother. You don’t think about the things he planted in the ground for you.
Things you won’t talk about from that psychedelic night at the Beverly Hills Hotel:
You won’t talk about the kissing;
the way your hips rose to meet his on hydraulics;
the way you grabbed his rear harder than you ever had, because you were safe in the pea soup of a drug;
that you wished you’d been asleep, that you wished you could sleep through anything to do with him;
that it was the best night of your life. The best sex, with anyone, even with him. Because in the dark you felt loved and wanted, more than you loved or wanted him; that you were both on drugs, yes, but that nothing he did was forceful. Nothing he ever did was forceful. The only thing that was different was the way he seemed to want you. Like it was the very first time he’d truly fucking wanted you, as much as or more than he cared about you or felt pity for you or felt friendship for you; how in the morning you jokingly said, You raped me last night!
How he said, That’s not even funny.
Because you can get arrested?
No, he said. Ari. He said your name like someone who loved you but was not obsessed with you. Like someone who might take care of you forever, if you were open to denial.
Please. I want to pretend he doesn’t exist.
One day he won’t, he said.
You ate red and black berries on the sunny patio of the bungalow that morning and read the paper together, but the fear had crept in and was sitting on the wrought-iron bench beside you, your own ghost lover that only you could see. You were always anticipating the day Nick would leave, a pit in your stomach that didn’t even keep you feeling full. You knew that he would. So you decided then to leave him first. Would any of these women tonight believe that of all the things in your life that had happened to you—the death of your father and the sixty-seven times you were palmed or swathed or entered against your will by a man with tendrils for hair—leaving Nick was actually the hardest thing you had ever done?
The president of the council introduces you, and you take the stage to TLC’s “No Scrubs.” In the third row, Jennifer stands in an emerald jumpsuit, her arms folded importantly, as everyone else claps. She has taken up beside an Argentinean model who is dating America’s sexiest man alive. Like the rest of them, Jennifer is a star-fucker. She thinks people on a screen are more valuable than she is. Maybe you know better, but you are no better. You have learned that the only thing superior to family is people who make money off your success. It makes you reach for the stars. We all need somebody to please.
Jeff claps aggressively on the other side of Jennifer. He is very dapper and his beard looks painted on, from this distance. You feel unmoved at the idea of him, suddenly. Your desire is at absolute zero. Conversely, you always wanted Nick. Even in the effervescing moments right after an orgasm. You’d always had trouble coming with a man, but never with him. During Karl but before Nick, you envisioned your clitoris lying on cement, sped over flickeringly by bicycle wheels. It would regenerate itself and look alive again, but its soul was smashed, bleeding tiny ruby seahorse tears on the sidewalks outside your father’s home.
Then Nick made you come through your heart. You didn’t need anything else.
All these women will listen, because you have all of their ears. Because you have shown them how to win men, you may now show them how to win themselves. It’s time to flip the switch. Paths of celebrity need to be redirected every six months to keep relevant.
It will be a good thing! Because women will come forward, about their own fingerings and their own just the tips, just for a minutes, their own predators and assholes and buck-footed mothers’ husbands.
Oh, but still you will let yourself hope. Even after the program this evening, when the nail is in the coffin, so to speak. Like you keep the wrapped soap in the bathroom, you are always saving for a sunny afternoon. Perhaps one day, if the world is emptied by zombies, if all the things that shouldn’t matter no longer do, then you will tell him, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
You will cry into his chest. You will forsake the fame, the money, the stilted house, the chilled, silver car.
To what devil did you promise your soul? It’s no longer a promise. He has it now. He is spinning it into a pink fever, like cotton candy. It’s too late. Look at the theater. Look down at your glass-heeled shoes, which cost nine hundred dollars. Touch your perfect hair that smells of nice hotels.
Imagine, if you want, the future. You have enough money that you can envision any development and deem it possible.
In the future, he will tuck your hair behind your ears, like he used to, his fingers large and full of grace, and say, It’s okay.
He will understand; he will understand that these people would not pity you for what your stepfather did. Or they would for a night and then they would think you are gross. They would think about you what you have often thought about yourself. In the shower, when you are scrubbing your thighs. Your stepfather made you lust after soap, made you want to slough the tainted gum of your uterus.
But Nick was a man, a man, and real men forgive. Look at your boyfriend there, useless in Armani. It’s possible, you see, that Nick was the only good man in America. But it was never going to happen unless you did these millions of terrible things. You are looking at this rayon rainbow and in your head you are saying this as a mantra. Like a series of locks clicking into place. Like stepping twice inside this square, and skipping these three cracks. Thank god nobody can see inside your head! You clear your throat of pain and useless trepidation and address the auditorium of showered women:
Ladies,, you will say. And gentlemen.
Los Angeles will be still for you. So will Boston. Your mother, finally, will listen.
It’s okay, Nick will whisper, at the other end of this moonless night. I can take the hit. It will be our little secret.
Because, he will say, looking at you for the first time like you are a dancer and not a fighter, because this is how much I love you.
This story was originally published in McSweeney’s Issue 55.