AN INTRODUCTION BY AMELIA GRAY
The thirteen stories in Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker are defiant to their type and bold within their bounds. They thrust themselves onto your lap and stay on your mind for days. “Home” leads the collection and holds the reader like the man behind the wheel holds the girl in the passenger seat: with a casual sense of control, and a subtle, lurking malice.
In this kind of story, even sizing someone up is a gendered act, and in this particular story it’s the girl who takes measure of the man.
The girl calls herself Ophelia and cajoles beer out of wary bartenders, levelling her predatory observation on an older man who takes her home despite his better judgment. The story strikes a careful balance between seduction and escape, obscuring its aims and objects. There is the older man, as there tends to be in stories like this, stories of young women striking out on their own; but in this story, the man plays a strange role. He is an understudy for a villain, seeming uncertain of his own aims and how she caught his attention, or how he caught hers.
And then there is the object of his attention itself, or more appropriately, the subject of hers. In so-called Ophelia we find the female gaze, capable of a predatory observation. In this kind of story, even sizing someone up is a gendered act, and in this particular story it’s the girl who takes measure of the man. She discerns his age from his flesh: “Despite the hard curve of his bicep his skin looks soft, a little loose, which is how she can tell he is older.” This is only one of a series of deliciously disorienting role reversals, but it encapsulates what this story does so well: gives a us a glinting flash, like a knife in water, of the danger which rests just under the surface.
Meijer writes with the controlled restraint of an explosives expert wiring a building for collapse. Reading her work is like taking a seat in that abandoned place and listening to the eerie shifting sounds. Soon enough, the whole thing will come down around you.
Author of Gutshot
Home by Maryse Meijer
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In the truck she sits straight, her hands flat on the seat. At a stoplight, seeing that his head is turned away, she opens the door and thrusts one shoulder out into the night air before he catches her arm. He doesn’t pull, just holds her still until she leans in again, slamming the door shut. When the light turns green he lets her go.
I live just down that street, she says.
Maybe on the way back I’ll drop you there, he replies. She rubs her arm.
No, she says. That’s all right.
At the restaurant she eats most of the large pizza they order, picking off the mushrooms and scooping the cheese into greasy knobs.
I need to go to the bathroom, she tells him, and he gives her a look like, So?
Don’t eat it all while I’m gone, she says. Laminated wood squeals under her pals as she slides her hand across the table. She looks over her shoulder, to see if he is watching her. He isn’t.
In the bathroom she pees half-standing over the toilet, while in the stall next to her a woman coughs.
Do you have any lipstick? the girl calls, leaning toward the woman’s ankles. Please?
Sure, the woman says, and a gold tube rolls beneath her stall door.
Thank you, the girl says. At the mirror she traces her mouth bright pink, her hips jutting into the edge of the sink.
You can keep that, honey, the woman says. It’s not so great on me.
When she gets back she sees him sweeping crumbs into a napkin. Despite the hard curve of his bicep his skin looks soft, a little loose, which is how she can tell he is older. Let’s get some beer, she says, smiling as he looks at her mouth. He lifts his hip for his wallet, licks his finger to peel out a five.
Something light, he tells her.
At the counter, a boy in a baseball cap stares at her when she orders a pitcher.
Can I see your I.D.? he asks.
She leans forward, her breasts plumping against her forearm.
No, she says.
Well, I can’t just give it to you without one.
The boy sighs. Is that guy your dad?
She shrugs. After a moment the boy turns to pull the beer from the tap.
What’s your name? he asks her.
Ophelia, she lies.
Yeah, she says. And I need some quarters, too.
She winks when he pours the change into her hand.
At the jukebox she punches in the numbers for a slow song. She dances by herself while men stare at her from their tables, arms curled around their paper plates. He is watching her, too, turned sideways in the booth and sucking foam from the top of his glass. She waves for him to join her and he shuffles to the broken tile of the dance floor.
Don’t tell me you don’t dance, she says, and puts her chin on his shoulder. At first he doesn’t move at all, but eventually she feels his hand at the top of her hip and he shifts from side to side, slower than the music. He smells like clean skin and cotton spread over something sour. She closes her eyes, but before the song is over he stops and says Let’s go.
Back in the truck they sit awhile. She picks at the scabs of her nail polish.
Why did you try to jump out like that? he asks.
I don’t know. I was just kidding.
When she turns to the window she feels his hand on her neck, and then he starts the truck.
When she sees him for the first time she is wearing a tight sleeveless top, short skirt, and black zip-up sweater, with a pair of flats made wrinkled at the heel. Her dirty blonde hair and her makeup make her look older than she is but still not old enough to be in a bar.
He is sitting on the stool closest to the door, drinking beer from the bottle. Shirley Temple, she tells the bartender, who winks at her while topping her glass off with vodka. Three cherries bump optimistically against the ice.
Cheers, she says, turning to him. He nods, tilting his bottle.
I haven’t seen you here before.
No, he says. You probably haven’t.
Want to buy my next one?
He shakes his head. You shouldn’t be having any. It’s only a soda, she says, and he looks away from her, sniffing. He finishes his beer in two long pulls as she watches.
Have a good night, he says, and as he is getting up to leave his eyes rest on her bare thigh. Then he is gone.
The next time they meet he is at the Laundromat, fishing change from the machine. Same jeans and grey jacket. Nearly every washer is spinning as she drags her laundry bag over to him and heaves it up onto a sorting table.
Hey, she says. What are you doing here?
He looks at her like, duh.
The hose on my machine is busted, he says. Oh. Bummer. She dumps her clothes, making a pile for underwear and socks and another for jeans, T-shirts.
How old are you? he asks.
Her head snaps up. What?
You look young.
So what are you doing in bars?
She shrugs, opening a package of detergent with her teeth. She spits out a piece of plastic. I just hang out, she says.
Yeah, she says, slapping some clothes into a machine.
Shouldn’t your mom be doing your laundry?
She gives him a hard look before slamming the machine door.
He puts his hands up.
She goes out to get a burrito and when she comes back he is sitting on a bench, reading. She sits at a table where she can watch him and flips through a magazine, eating chips and pushing at some spilled beans and cheese with her finger.
What are you reading? she asks. He tilts the book forward in his lap, but she only pretends to read the title.
I bet Cosmo is way better, she says. How to Please Your Man. 101 Ways. She yawns. The edge of the plastic seat bites into her thighs and her leg goes numb.
I hate coming here, she says. It takes so long.
You got that right, he says, and gets up to check his laundry. He’s good-looking, blue eyes and reddish hair, wiry body. They fold their clothes together in silence and she can tell that he is going back and forth in his mind, liking her and not.
You really shouldn’t be drinking at that bar, he says, loading his clothes into a bin. I know, she replies, and for a moment they just stand there.
Well, he says. See you.
Bye! she says, too loud, and an old woman pulling the cotton pills off a pair of socks stares, lips tight as a clothespin.
She knows he will come to the bar that night and she waits for him, holding her bottle of beer between her legs and watching a trio of boys cracking pool balls and smoking. When he comes in and stands behind her she is careful not to look at him. The hair on her neck prickles.
Are you finished with that? he asks.
Yeah. There’s some backwash left if you want it, she says, not taking her eyes off the boys. Do you play pool?
No, he says, and then: Come with me.
She runs her fingers through the sweat on the beer bottle. He waits.
Okay, she says, and she slips from her stool, pulling her jacket onto her arms.
Outside, they stand in front of his truck. He wipes his mouth with the back of his wrist and she sucks in her cheeks.
You haven’t said anything about my outfit, she says.
It’s nice. A little impractical.
She squints. You have a strange way of coming on to girls.
I’m not coming on to you.
She kicks at the gravel. Okay.
He puts his hands in his pockets, takes a few steps away from her, then turns and says Do you want to go somewhere?
He opens the door for her and slams it hard once she gets inside. There is no garbage on the floor of the cab, no empty bottles or cans, no food wrappers or old gum stuck to the dash. They drive for a long time; it’s late, she’s tipsy, and she falls asleep, her head slipping down the window. When she wakes up they are stopped in a steep dirt driveway and he is staring at her.
Oh, she says, wiping saliva from the side of her mouth. Where are we?
My house. Get out, he says, and then adds If you want.
She knows that they are in the foothills about an hour from town, though she doesn’t know exactly where.
The house has a big porch, but that is all she can make out in the darkness. There are no neighbors.
He unlocks the door and stands aside for her to enter, reaching his hand around the jamb to flip on the light. There’s an old brown couch and chair on a balding rug. Shelves filled only with books line the walls, the volumes pulled to the edges in perfect lines. A television rests on the coffee table. In the kitchen there are black pots hanging from the ceiling, a large Formica table. She checks the refrigerator: milk and brimming vegetable bins, big tub of yogurt, a brick of meat in the freezer.
Are you hungry? he asks.
Then go wash your face.
Upstairs. First door is the bathroom. There’s an extra toothbrush in the cabinet.
He starts unloading his jacket pocket on the kitchen table. Clatter of keys and coins, the dead thump of his wallet. She stares at him.
I thought you said you weren’t coming on to me.
I’m still not.
She chews the inside of her cheek.
Go on, he says.
Without another word she turns and heads up the stairs.
Take off your shoes, he calls after her, and she slips them off and drops them over the railing.
In the tiny bathroom she pees and rinses out her mouth, peeling the cellophane from the new toothbrush but leaving it unused on the rim of the sink. He knocks at the door and when she opens it he hands her a stack of blankets.
You can sleep on the couch, he tells her. It folds out.
She stares at the blankets, then back at his face. This is weird, isn’t it?
Is it? he echoes. A door at the end of the hall opens and closes. She goes to the stairs and knocks the blankets around with her foot and then sits down, thinking he will come out for her in a few minutes. When she wakes up she is still there, on her back in the hallway with her socks on.
She finds him in the kitchen, an apron around his waist. Three pots tremble and spit on the stove. The air is thick with the smell of stewing fruit, and the sink, streaked with juice, is full of pits and skins.
Is that breakfast?
Then what is it?
Jam, he says, pushing a jar toward her. Pot holders are over there. Hold this steady.
It takes them several minutes to get all the fruit into the jars, lined and couching steam on the counters. She has seen people do this in movies, but wonders why anyone would do it in real life.
Who eats all this? she asks.
She begins pawing through the cabinets while he watches her. She frowns. You don’t even have cereal, she says.
What about lunch?
What about it?
Do you have peanut butter?
He shakes his head.
What do you eat with the jelly, then? She sighs. We need to go shopping.
He takes an envelope from the top of the refrigerator and hands it to her.
Write down what you want.
Can’t I just go with you? Sometimes I don’t know what I want until I see it.
Well, get something good, like chips or something.
She rolls her eyes.
Do you like fruit? he asks.
Some of it. Bananas.
I also like ice cream, she says.
When he returns she is sitting on the back porch steps, eating a piece of bread and butter and some of the new jam. She can hear him in the house, tense footsteps upstairs and then down the hall and through the kitchen. Finally she hears the back door swing open but she doesn’t turn around.
Get in the house, he says. She licks a spot of jam from her thumb.
Did you hear me?
Calm down, she says. She pushes herself up and squeezes past his body in the doorway, her shirt tangling against his. In the kitchen she reaches into the paper sack on the table and frowns.
You didn’t get any ice cream, she says, clutching a bag of mushrooms.
They didn’t have any.
Idiot, she groans.
Every morning for the next three days he leaves the house for a few hours. While he is gone she watches television, or sleeps on the couch, or looks through the magazines he brings her. In the evening they play cards cross-legged on the rug or at the kitchen table. Rummy and Snap and War, with the radio on to something she likes. The he goes to bed and she stays up late watching more TV. Once while he is gone she goes to his room and opens his dresser drawers, digging beneath the neatly folded T-shirts and underwear. She finds some money, small bills, and an envelope full of receipts. She doesn’t think about how many days pass or who might be missing her or what she is doing. She is just waiting for the next thing to happen.
One morning over his newspaper he says You smell like a bakery.
Like a nice French place or an outlet? she asks.
She looks down, pulling her shirt away from her chest. I need to get some clothes.
We could just stop by my house and I could —
No, he says.
She looks at him for a moment. Then we could go to the Goodwill, it doesn’t matter. But I don’t have any money. Can’t we wash stuff here?
The washing machine hose is busted, he says. Remember?
Oh. Well then, I guess you’re taking me out. She smiles, but he doesn’t smile back, and she can see him thinking, that he is upset.
What? she asks, reaching across the table to pinch the back of his hand. He flinches. Don’t you like shopping?
Outside, in the driveway, he asks her to lie down behind the bench seat of the truck.
You’re joking, she says.
Just lie down there. It’s clean.
Why? she asks, but he only looks at her. She waits to see if she feels scared, but she doesn’t. She climbs in. On her back, with her knees drawn up, she thinks, This is really fucked up. He drives carefully so as not to bump her.
You all right? he asks.
She presses down on her skirt. I’m fine, considering, she says. The truck vibrates all the loose flesh on her body and she has to clench her teeth to keep them from rattling.
Can we have the radio at least?
He flips it on, but all they get is static.
Kandy’s Super Thrift sits on a wide strip of road she has never seen before, bookended by gas stations and hamburger stands. Inside, half a dozen plastic fans whip up a breeze and a few sulky-faced girls snap gum at each other and spin the knobs on a black-and-white television.
Some dump, she says, idling through the racks, pushing at the clothes that have fallen to the floor with her foot.
What do you think about this, she asks him, holding up a white top that says I’m Your Petty Cash.
I don’t care.
She plucks a straw hat from a dented foam head. This?
Would you hurry up? he hisses.
She drops the hat and continues digging around in another row. It irritates her that he seems irritated, that he keeps his eyes on her like a giant unhappy bird. She sees a gap in the aisle, just big enough for her to fit through, and on the other side, the door.
Where do you like to shop? she asks.
He rubs his forehead.
The mall? I bet you go to the mall, she says. I bet you shop at the Gap.
You have five minutes.
Just let me try these things on, she says, holding out her arm, over which clothes are slung like slack bodies. You can come with me if you want, she adds.
No. Whatever doesn’t fit I’ll bring back.
She shrugs. You’re paying.
You seemed older when we met, he says as they walk out to the truck. More mature.
You seemed normal, she snaps back. Less nuts.
When they get home he runs a bath while she watches.
Get in, he says.
She turns her back to him, undresses. He sits on the edge of the tub. She slips into the water.
You have a grout problem, she says, shaving her legs with his razor. It’s missing in a lot of places.
Mm, he says.
Will you wash my hair?
He stares. Why?
She stares back, then shrugs. Nicer that way.
Scratching his jaw he sighs. Close your eyes, he says, and kneels beside the tub.
She leans forward, her chin on her knees. He scrubs shampoo in circles over her head, this thumbs hard against her scalp. He does the conditioner, then puts one hand on her forehead and the other on the back of her neck and lays her down flat in the gray water.
Rinse, he says, the ceiling light bright behind his head. From beneath the water she looks straight up into his face. When she is finished he squeezes her hair into a rope that drips over her shoulder.
You’re all set, he says.
As she gets out of the tub water slops over the porcelain and onto the floor. She stands in front of him, water slowing in the hair between her legs. He reaches up to touch her face. She opens her lips and he pushes two fingers past them and as she closes her eyes she thinks, Now. But she is wrong.
Because she wins the next night’s game of Rummy she is allowed to have one beer.
Toast me, she says, lying next to him on the living-room rug. She tips the neck of her bottle toward his.
No chance, he says. You cheated.
She laughs and forces the lip of her beer into his. When she is finished drinking she turns toward him, propping herself up on her elbow, her fist against her cheek.
So where do you work? she asks.
Oh, she says. She can’t tell whether he is joking or not. Do you have a girlfriend?
He shakes his head.
He shrugs. Just don’t.
You have me, though.
He grunts, taking a long swallow of beer. She scoots closer to him.
Your hair is in my face, he says. She leans down to kiss him and he kisses her back. She tastes alcohol and that night’s spaghetti sauce. His eyes are closed for a moment but when she lifts her leg and spreads it over his hip, reaching for the zipper on his jeans, he puts his hand on her chest.
Stop, he says, sitting up.
Don’t you like me?
I like you, he says, rubbing his eyebrows. I like you.
Why, then? Why not?
He gets up and takes the bottles to the kitchen, throwing them into the trash so hard they crack. She follows him in, hands on her hips, and he turns to her and says Don’t you know anyone who doesn’t try to fuck you?
She flinches. You’re the one who brought me here! she shouts. We do the same things every day and you never want to go anywhere and I have to lie down in your stupid truck on the floor and you make me —
I don’t make you do anything, he cuts in, flinging the back door open. You want to go? Get out.
Fuck you! she screams, kicking the door shut so hard the windows rattle in their frames. His face twitches.
It’s late. You should go to bed.
Would you stop telling me what to do?
Early the next morning she goes to his room. He is lying on his side beneath the sheets, one rough cheek resting on his bicep. Everywhere there is cracking plaster, more bookshelves, painted dresser with its drawers shut tight. Water and a cluster of keys stand on a little table beside his bed. Everything feels familiar to her but also strange, because she sees so clearly the pieces but not how they fit together.
Come here, he says.
I thought you were sleeping.
No. I don’t sleep very well.
She shuffles toward him until the backs of her hands brush against the mattress. He makes room for her and she lies on her side next to him, her breasts chafing against her T-shirt.
He touches her eyebrow with this thumb. I’m sorry I made you lie in the back of the truck.
It’s okay. She tries to look him in the eye but she can’t.
Go to sleep, he says, and somehow she does.
When she wakes up he is gone. She rinses her underwear and shirts in the kitchen sink and when he comes home he sees her clothes slung over the shower rod, dripping on the floor, and he stops and says Didn’t I tell you I fixed the washer?
That evening he says he wants to go for a walk. Outside, it’s still light. It’s too cold, she says, stopping at the bottom of the porch, but he doesn’t turn around.
You should have put on a sweater.
She throws her hands up. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You always want to do something that doesn’t make any sense. She considers turning back, but instead kicks at a rock and keeps going.
They walk about a mile and then there is a loud cracking noise, like a gunshot.
Just a branch, he says. We can go back now if you want.
No, she says.
No, she says again. Chase me.
He looks at her.
Come on, she urges.
Okay, he says. Run. She takes off into the trees.
As soon as she knows she is out of sight she stops, leaning against a tree, the air on her lips brittle as she catches her breath. The sky is hooded with leaves and where the sun melts through it turns the dust in the air to gold.
You’re fast, he says, coming up behind her. She stumbles away from the tree.
Shit, she says, still panting. You scared me.
Should we go back?
Then what now?
She smiles. Now you have to kill me.
He pushes his hands into his pockets.
And what if I want you to kill me?
She blinks. What?
Go ahead, he says.
She reaches out and touches his stomach with the palm of her hand, running it up to his chest and then down past his belt while he watches her. She wonders about beauty, about the way he looks right now — older and folded in on himself — and the heat in her body that will not stop.
Aren’t you going to hit me? he says.
Her hands slide off him and she takes a small step sideways.
Don’t be scared, he says.
I’m not, she says.
Then hit me. He lifts his chin. Come on.
Yes you can.
When she sees him raise his hand she thinks for a moment that she should try to stop him, but she doesn’t and he hits her, hard, across her face, kicking her to her knees. He crouches down behind her, an arm wrapped tight around her waist.
What do you want? he asks.
Tell me I’m beautiful, she says.
You’re beautiful, he says into her ear, and then again into her hair. You’re beautiful. Her shoulders start to shake.
Listen to me, he says. You have to go home.
You have to.
No, she says, sinking her fingers into the ground.
When I count to ten, he says. One. Two.
Why? she whispers. I don’t want to.
But he keeps counting. And when he gets to ten he lets her go.