AN INTRODUCTION BY LAURA VAN DEN BERG
Mona Awad’s fiction doesn’t let up.
In “If That’s All There Is,” a story taken from her gutsy and glorious debut Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, the narrator is the recipient of a dubious overture from her co-worker, Archibald. She contemplates his offer and decides — though it is a decision saddled with ambiguity — to take hold of the door he has shaken loose and pull it open a little wider.
“If That’s All There Is” is, of course, about so much more than the relationship between the narrator and Archibald; its complexities of subject are manifold. It is about the sometimes unfathomable insanity of attraction. It is about the daily, deadly concessions women so often make. That ruinous compulsion to accommodate. It is about the way the most unlikely person can have the power to make us, for a moment, feel at home in our own skin — even if, at the same time, they are contributing to our unraveling. This story, like much of Awad’s fiction, is also discomfitingly hilarious: “This bland man is licking the crotch of my underwear, how nice,” the narrator thinks during a very awkward cab ride.
What I love most about this story, though, is its refusal to coast along on merely pointing out the insanity of attraction or to coast along by leaning too heavily on the discomfiting humor. The story doesn’t let up. It keeps pushing its narrator, and thus the reader, into increasingly dark and thorny and risky territory. A dachshund and a harmonica and Peggy Lee all play an integral part. And as the story hurtles toward its destination there is the sense that we are plunging deep into a moment of raw and exhilarating truth — and then, like lightening, we are there.
Mona Awad is one of the most exciting new voices I have read in a long time. Welcome to her world.
Laura van den Berg
Author of Find Me
If That’s All There Is
by Mona Awad, recommended by Laura van den Berg
So one night, on a dead shift, my coworker Archibald casually tells me there are things he’s been picturing doing to me of late and when I say, “Like what?” he hands me a small scrap of paper with the word cunnilingus written on it in red ink.
I stare at the jagged letters. All lowercase. The cunni written eerily straight, the lingus curved and veering downward like a tail. Each letter separated by a space as though they’re acronyms for other words.
I look at Archibald sitting in a swivel chair beside me, his thirty-something face red from the low-grade grain whiskey he keeps in a giant coffee mug under the desk. He’s looking at me like I’m not twice his size and wearing a turd-colored shirt that says MUSIC! BOOKS! VIDEO! on it and a blue apron over that that says WE HAVE IT ALL!!! He’s looking at me like I’m donning what Mel wears to go dancing on fetish nights at Savage Garden, which is basically just a few strategically positioned scraps of black lace.
I tell myself, Laugh. It’s a joke, obviously. But when I force a
one-note laugh like a cough, Archibald doesn’t laugh with me.
“I’m good at it, Lizzie,” Archibald says. “Quite good. I play the harmonica semiprofessionally. Chromatic scale.”
I look back down at the note. He’s scribbled it on one of those torn bits of scrap paper we keep in a fishbowl at the desk so customers can scribble whatever out‑of‑print or obscure book they want special-ordered. A dated history of the Ottoman Empire. Herzog’s walking diary from Munich to Paris. A photography book featuring extreme close-ups of female genitalia, where they don’t look like genitalia at all but like sea plants.
“I’m sure an attractive girl like you has a ton of admirers,” Archibald continues. “Boyfriends.”
He’s looking at me sideways, but I say nothing. I just look off to the left like it’s too true. After all, Archibald did once tell me that Fergie, our obese coworker who walks with a cane due to a childhood case of polio, is deeply in lust with me. When I pointed out that Fergie is old enough to be my grandfather, he said that Roland, the little troll man who works in receiving, has a profound boner for me too. So there’s that.
“You can’t be serious about this,” I say, shaking my head at the note.
“Why not?” he says, looking right at me. I see his expression is as eerily sober as it is when he talks about harmonica maintenance or extols the virtues of the chromatic over the diatonic scale.
Thankfully, a customer comes up. A man in a worn suit and a trench coat clutching a yellowed slip of paper fervently in his fist. On that paper will surely be a list of about ten out‑of‑print books on some obscure subject. This man is one of Archibald’s regulars. I wait for the man to leave even though my shift has been over for seven minutes by the time they’re finished, and Mel is waiting for me at the apartment to sample some new CDs. When the customer finally does leave, I say to Archibald, “Can I think about it?”
Archibald smiles at me with one side of his mouth.
“It’s not a ring, Lizzie. Just consider it an open invitation.”
The next day at work, I’m flirty, casual. I even have a plan, which I thought of last night and then visualized all day in Old English and Renaissance Poetry and then on my way to work. I’ll thank him off-the-cuff for the note, then suggest, off-the-cuff, that we go for coffee. Just coffee. I’ve borrowed Mel’s Celtic cross necklace, and put my mother’s lace tank under my work shirt, which I’ve unbuttoned down to the middle of my chest. I’m liberal with the Winter Dew eau de cologne. More careful than usual in my application of Rebel blended with Lady Danger, then topped with Girl About Town gloss. I even hazard a look at myself in the subway car windows on the way to work and I don’t immediately look away.
I find Archibald in the break room, sitting in the far corner on a lopsided futon by a moldering tower of Harlequins with ripped-off covers, scarfing banana bread out of a Tupperware container, looking seriously stoned.
He doesn’t acknowledge me when I come in. Even when I clear my throat, he’s still scarfing his bread as though in a kind of dream.
“Hey,” I say. Flirty, casual.
He raises his eyebrows in vague recognition, grunts, and then keeps eating the bread.
I sit down beside him on the futon, half-facing him, and braid my hands together on my lap. It’s not flirty. I feel as though we’re in court or I’m his therapist. I unbraid my fingers and run a hand through my hair. Cards, you have all the cards, remember.
“So I’ve been thinking about your offer.”
I feel myself go red in patches the way I hate.
“What you wrote. On that scrap of paper yesterday?”
“Oh, right, my offer.” He smiles as if recalling the lovable antics of an old friend. “And?”
“I was thinking how it was really rude of me to just brush you off like that.”
“Anyway, I was thinking that maybe…”
“Well… you know…” I trail off. Janice comes in just then, this obscenely depressed woman who works in Kids. She’s eyeing us now from where she sits on the broken rocking chair, frowning over her mug of cheap fennel tea.
“Maybe we could…” I say, lowering my voice.
“You know, meet.”
“Really?” He looks pleased. Too pleased.
“Not the note. I mean go for coffee.”
Behind me, Janice snorts into her tea.
“Coffee,” he repeats.
He gives me the same look he gave me last time, the long, lingering one like I’m not wearing my bookstore uniform, but something sexy, even obscure.
“How about tonight?” he says.
“Tonight?” In my head I was picturing a date in the future. At least a week to prepare. Prepare for what? I should be spur‑of‑the-moment.
That’s how you live life, isn’t it? Carefree.
“I finish later than you do tonight,” I say at last.
“It’ll be late. I mean for coffee, though.”
“So we’ll have tea,” Archibald says.
The cabdriver’s name, according to the lit‑up license on the back of the seat, is Jesus. A scentless pine tree dangles from the smudged rearview mirror, in which I can see one of Jesus’s eyes, mud colored and narrowed, the brow over it thick and severely furrowed.
“He doesn’t care,” Archibald said in a low voice when we first got into the cab and he tried to take off my shirt. “He sees this kind of stuff all the time, trust me.”
I shook my head.
“You’re holding out on me, Lizzie. But that’s okay. I consider myself lucky just to be here with you. Just keep driving, Jesus,” he called. “We want to see more.”
“Where I go?”
“Just drive us around. Turn some circles, you know? Give us the grand tour of downtown.”
A few minutes later, I’m smiling pleasantly at Jesus’s eye in the rearview mirror, trying to act like Archibald’s head is not under my maxi skirt, between my legs, where it has been for some time now. I’m moaning quietly. Moaning so as not to be rude to Archibald, but trying to do it quietly so that I’m not being rude to the driver. The moans come out of me like hiccups. The truth is I’m too aware of Jesus, of the passing cars, the human traffic on the whooshing streets, the brightness of the city lights, to fully register what’s happening between my widely parted thighs. Mostly it’s as though the bottom half of me has been cut off from the top half and the top half is observing the happenings of the bottom from a curious, empirical height. This bland man is licking the crotch of my underwear, how nice. Now he has removed them. Now he is biting my thighs. Moaning quietly into my leg flesh. There are a couple of moments when the bottom and the top half fuse, when he bites one of my legs hard or I feel his moans hum against my skin, and I gasp. Then I become a whole body of actual flesh that he is actually touching, then I feel the brush of his tongue as an actual brush of an actual tongue between my actual thighs. That’s when I say, I love you, the words just flying out of my mouth like brassy butterflies.
Jesus looks at me. He heard it, but maybe, hopefully, Archibald didn’t.
When the meter gets to twenty dollars, I make my moaning more broken sounding, full of breaths and catches the way Mel’s is when I hear her having sex with her boyfriend through the wall, and then I pretend to orgasm. It’s been seven minutes or so. Mel knew a guy who could make her come in seven minutes.
Archibald lifts his head up from under my skirt, still between my legs.
I look at his face framed between my knees. Floating there weirdly in the dark. His lips are glossy, his thinning red hair in disarray. He takes his glasses off and his eyes are a different color — darker, greener, with bits of yellow in them, which are probably reflections from the lights outside.
“No, I really did.”
“It’s okay.” He pats my knee and sits back up on the seat beside me. “I’ll make you next time. Oh, hey, turn this up! Jesus, turn it up. Way up!” He thumps the back of the cabbie’s seat until the man obliges.
“I love this song,” Archibald says to me, leaning his head against the backseat. “Peggy Lee. ‘Is That All There Is.’ You heard it before?”
“No. I like it though,” I say. I don’t. It sounds too old-timey. That cheesy swell of strings. The elephantine trumpets. The woman’s world-weary voice sounding deep and dark as a well, but with one eyebrow raised, one side of her painted lips curled in a perverse smirk.
“It sounds like the circus,” I say.
“If that’s all there is, break out the booze and have a ball,” Archibald says; he’s looking at me intently but blearily. He’s got a big bottle of L’Ambiance he just took a swig from. He holds it out to me, but I shake my head. “I can’t believe you let me do that to you just now.”
“It was fun. I mean, I don’t see how it was fun for you.”
“Oh it was. It’s all I’ve wanted to do to you since I first saw you.”
“I have other fantasies too. Lots of them.”
“Sure. I’m grateful, you know. I’m grateful to you. Look at you. Look at me. I’m unworthy. It’s okay. I know I am. I’ve accepted it. The fact that you let me do this?” He shakes his head. “I’m shocked, honestly. But I’m not going to question it. I’ll take what I can get. It’s like this song. If that’s all there is, break out the booze and have a ball, you know?” He takes a sip of his wine jug. “Sorry we had to do it here, though. In front of Jesus. Guess I couldn’t wait. I was excited.”
“That’s okay. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”
“Anytime. Anytime you want, you just call. I hope you do.”
He takes my hand, smiles at me a little sadly. “Do you mind if I bum one of your cigarettes?”
When I come home and tell Mel what happened she says, “Sounds like it was a bust.”
“Totally,” I say.
But then I call him the next night and he comes over.
He starts coming over regularly. Nights we work together.
Nights we don’t. After a few weeks, I start calling him my boyfriend sort of, adding the sort of only when I’m talking to Mel. We have sex that I tell myself is good, it is good surely, certainly it is okay, it is definitely not terrible, and then afterward he tries to educate me about the jazz harmonica, which he says is the most underappreciated of instruments. He’ll be deeply stoned on the generous joint he rolled himself from the bag of pot I keep for him in my freezer, drunk on the alcohol he toted over here in a worn plastic bag. I’ll watch him pace my bedroom, going on about dissonance and scales, his head too big for his body, his glasses too big for his face. I remind myself that these lectures, delivered in his underwear with an earnestness that I tell myself is charming, are better than watching him laugh through a very sad and disturbing film, his second-favorite post-sex activity. I remind myself that I didn’t need to call him tonight, though I just did. Just like I called him on Wednesday. And Sunday and Monday. For fun.
After eight or so weeks of dating him, I still can’t explain his appeal to Mel, who often ushers me into the kitchen to have short hissing conversations about how he’s lame. It’s a descent to sleep with him. A Descent. When I tell her casually that Archibald’s coming over tonight, she says, “He is?”
“Nothing. You’ve just been seeing him a lot.”
“Just for fun, though. He likes me,” I say, sort of wanton.
When she says nothing, I ask, “Do you think he likes me?”
“Do you like him?”
“I like the way he touches me a lot,” I say, thinking of how on the subway the other day, he grabbed my boob through my shirt and how it was actually pretty embarrassing and I told him repeatedly, People are watching, because they were and he said, Let them. But this is not a good example. I think of how I can wear a bra and underwear around him and I don’t have to hide my middle with my hands the way I did with Kurt, a friend I lost my technical virginity to a summer ago. He was a virgin too. What we did in the half dark of his dad’s truck was a platonic arrangement, so that we would no longer be freaks to ourselves or the world. The next day, he took me to see Rent and we had a seafood dinner on King Street. Archibald doesn’t take me to dinner, but I can be naked in front of him. Under bright lights. In full daylight. Actually naked. Breasts. Thighs. Stomach laid bare. This is a sight that excites him. And when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the half dark of the hallway on the way to the bathroom or kitchen, I don’t look away. I stay there. I look at my body and I am fascinated by what I now see to be its appeal. But I could never explain that, even to her.
“He touches me like…” I lower my voice. “…like he likes my body. Like, actually likes it.”
“So long as you know what you’re doing,” Mel says.
I tell her I do. So I keep calling him. So I call him almost every night. Most nights he comes.
He’s on his way right now. Probably still on the subway, though maybe, hopefully, already on the bus. I look at my watch. Running late. Sometimes the buses take time. He might have missed his connection, which he often does. Soon he’ll be here. Ringing the doorbell. Running his hands down my hips. Telling me he can’t believe a girl like me is even interested in a guy like him. And I’ll smile like it’s all too true.
The phone rings just then. I think it’s Archibald so I just say, “Where are you?”
“Is Archibald there?” It’s a woman’s voice, pointy and full of purpose.
“No, he isn’t.”
“Is this Lizzie?” the voice asks. She says the word Lizzie like it’s a loaded thing, a cup she’s ready to smash against a wall.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
Crackly silence. A dog yipping in the background she attempts to shush. The dog keeps yipping. She shushes him again. This time more violently.
Then: “Are you sleeping with him?”
Now it’s my turn not to say anything. The phone feels heavy and slick in my hand. Mel’s mouthing at me, Who is it?
“Who is this?” I ask.
“This is Britta,” says the voice, gathering gravity. “His girlfriend.”
Mel raises an eyebrow at me. “Girlfriend,” she repeats.
The woman on the other end of the line acquires flesh, a face, blond hair, tapping nails. I say nothing.
“Is he on his way over there? He’s on his way isn’t he? Hello? Hello?”
“Helloooo?” Archibald calls from the doorway. “Anybody home? Sorry I’m late. Oh, you’re on the phone,” he mouths, then shuffles into my room.
I come into my room to find Archibald lying on my bed playing his harmonica, kicking his feet against my dark blue wall. A grown man in a windbreaker. Hair going gray at the veiny temples. Pants too short for his thin, white legs. I’m wearing a lace slip in which I now I feel naked, fat, stupid. I put my housecoat on over it to gain some dignity. I sit in my desk chair, wait for him to notice that I’m not joining him on the bed.
At last he stops playing and turns to me. “What?”
“A woman named Britta just phoned. She says you’re sleeping with her. Are you?”
He doesn’t answer.
“I was descending to sleep with you, you know. I was descending!
And you cheat on me? And you’re smiling? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Just you’re super hot when you’re pissed is all,” he says, biting on his grin.
I start to cry.
Now he’s on his knees explaining. He explains for a long time, while I smoke one cigarette after another. Britta isn’t really his girlfriend. Not really, he says.
“She’s just this crazy woman who lived on the fifth floor of our house for a while. I actually felt sorry for her, you know? All by herself on the fifth floor. She had this little dog she washed every night. You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. I thought of the dog I heard yipping in the background. “When I told her it was over, she started stalking me. Like seriously stalking. Wouldn’t leave me alone. I guess she likes what I can do or something. But she was clinging to me. It was embarrassing, you know?”
I think of that pointy voice on the phone, swerving from hysteria to gravitas.
I light another cigarette and notice my hands are shaking.
He takes them in his. I snatch them away from him but he takes them again and this time, I let him.
“But you,” Archibald says. “You are the one I always wanted. I never even thought I could get someone like you, you know? And I hate to think I’ve ruined my chances here.”
He starts to kiss my hands. Kisses them all over, multiple times. Someone like me. I am the one he has always wanted. Never thought he could get. I feel my eyes well up again. The room becomes warped and swimmy. Then he kisses my thighs, starts to gently pry them apart with his hands. Get out. Get out right now. The words rise in my throat like bile, but they don’t come out. Instead, I just sit there limp, letting him.
I promise Mel I’ll end it. I promise myself I’ll end it. Every time I go over to his place or he comes over to mine, every time I hear the plaintive wail of his approaching harmonica, I think, End it. I tell myself this for weeks. Fucking end it. Speak the words. But what comes out is, Hey. I missed you. How come you’re late? For the first few weeks, I even picture myself walking away from him. Chin tilted high. Already lighter for having left him.
Instead I stay in bed, ignoring the nearly constant ringing telephone from an unknown number, waiting for him to come over. Get dizzy spells whenever I leave the apartment. Start skipping class. Calling in sick to work. Panic attacks, the doctor says, and prescribes pills which Archibald and I take together, lying in my bedroom or his, the lights dimmed.
“I’m dying,” I tell him quietly on our six-month anniversary.
“Oh, Dizzy Lizzy,” he says, grabbing my breast.
“I love you.” I say it more often, more fervently than before, the words slipping from my mouth before I can catch them, reel them back in.
“And I love you,” he says, stroking my thigh. When he touches me now, I feel revulsion and gratitude at the same time.
We have sex and I cry through the whole thing.
“Hey,” he says. “You okay?”
“I’m hungry,” I say.
Chinese food in bed, Take Out Dinner 2B with extra spring rolls. Pizza with wings. Sometimes I’ll stumble into the kitchen and make us something obscene, which we’ll devour, stoned, while watching one of his freak movies, for which I’ve now developed a newfound fascination: The Elephant Man or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or this carnival documentary he loves that takes a cold hard look at the mutant humanity behind sideshow acts. Or we listen to jazz, also my suggestion. I’ll lie there in my slip, let him go on and on about dissonance. It isn’t charming or funny anymore. It just is.
I no longer look at myself in the mirror on the way to the bathroom or the kitchen. I lie in my slip, never naked in front of him now, and I watch him, oblivious to my existence, playing the harmonica, for which I have now acquired a dull loathing, filling my room with its terrible, earsplitting whine. I watch him smoke my cigarettes, his thin freckled chest with its odd hair tufts, exhaling and inhaling. It’s over forever on the tip of my tongue, but when he sits up from my bed to say, Well, I should probably get going, I stare at his severely stooped knobby back, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, and when I open my mouth what I say is, Can I come with you?
From where I lie on his bed, I watch Archibald stumble, half-naked, toward the record player on the opposite end of his basement apartment, a single low-ceilinged room lit by chili pepper lights he told me he stole from a Mexican restaurant. I don’t know how long I’ve been in his basement, lying on his shitty green bed, stoned and naked and full of salt. Days? A week, maybe? There are Chinese takeout boxes all over the bed and table. Schoolbooks I brought with me but haven’t opened. I have no idea what time it is and I haven’t been to class or work in days. We’re playing the Peggy Lee album, the song “Is That All There Is?” by my own request for the ninth or ninetieth time. From a great distance, I hear Archibald ask me, “Are you okay?”
“I see why you love this song. It’s great.”
And I do see. In fact, when I hear Peggy Lee’s voice fill his dark, ugly, low-ceilinged room festooned with its blinking red lights, the fog clears. I well up, float, am buoyed by the circus sounds, the trumpets.
Like every time I came over, I came over intending to end it. Twice I opened my mouth to say it. Twice what came out was, Let’s order Chinese.
Now I’m just lying here spinning, my mouth open and parched from MSG, too stoned to move, watching two of him walk back toward me.
I don’t know when the knocking starts. Is it distinct from the music? Or maybe the music has a door? The song has a door someone is pounding on with their first? Weird I didn’t hear that before.
“Is that someone knocking on your door?” I ask.
“Ling can get it.” Ling is one of his five million housemates.
But the knocking keeps going.
“I don’t see why I have to answer,” Archibald says, talking to the air around him like it’s accusing him. “It’s one in the morning.”
The knocking continues, acquires bass.
“You sure you shouldn’t get that?” I slur.
Archibald stands up and makes his way toward the sliding doors. I hear him trudge slowly up the stairs. “Is That All There Is?” is still playing on repeat. Over and over again, Peggy Lee getting existential about the circus, about a fire, about love and then death. How many times have I heard this song? I continue my upward drift to the cracked popcorn ceiling, in a swaying motion, hearing voices, hushed and hissing, then louder, closer. In the song? No. Upstairs, it sounds like. I should get up, see, but my limbs are lead.
Suddenly a woman is marching toward me. Archibald pulls her back but she shakes him off, she won’t be stopped. She is a giant woman out of the circus, out of my nightmares of the circus. But she’s familiar. One of our customers, in fact. One of Archibald’s. She came into the store recently and asked me for a book about dachshund care. Didn’t have the title. Insisted I search by subject. Nodded absently while I read off listings. A huge woman with bubble-flipped dirty blond hair. She had with her then, as she does now, a little yipping dachshund on an absurdly short leash. The moment I see her I know she is the woman who called me. This is the dog that was barking in the background.
I lie there, still unable to move, while she seats herself in Archibald’s chair beside the bed, the one with the huge burn stain on the seat, with the overflowing ashtray on the armrest — full of all my ash and cigarette butts imprinted with Girl About Town gloss. She takes the dog in her arms and he wriggles there like a demon-possessed sausage, yipping like mad. He’s wearing a little tweed coat that looks like a cape.
I look around for Archibald but he is now nowhere to be seen.
“You’re Lizzie.” When she says my name, it isn’t a cup anymore. It’s shards on the floor.
“Yes. You’re Britta.”
“I just want you to know,” she says, “he’s been sleeping with me this whole time. After he sees you, he comes and sees me. He was supposed to see me tonight. Then he canceled on me last minute.” Her voice is grave but full of dangerous swerves and wavers, like it’s a car about to veer off the road.
I look at her. Her tight black slacks covered in little dog hairs. One of those awful Addition Elle sweaters my mother and I would never buy. The ones they sell at the back of the store with all the lame bells and whistles that no self-respecting fat woman would ever purchase. Sweaters for the women who have given up on style. Sweaters for the women who just want their flesh to be covered.
“Okay,” I say. My limbs are lead. My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest, grow feet, and run out of the room.
“Ladies. Whoa. Look, everyone just be cool, okay? We’ll sit down and we’ll work this out,” Archibald says. He’s standing in a corner of the room, attempting to look grave, but I can tell that once more he’s trying not to smile. The perverse grin that appeared when I first confronted him about Britta is once again sliding around underneath his concerned expression, just under his twitching lips.
“Oh, I’m very cool,” Britta says, rocking a little in his burned chair. The whites of her eyes are all pink. She’s been crying, that’s obvious. I think of the squidgy banana bread I saw him scarf in the break room. The Tupperware containers I’ve sometimes seen on his fridge shelf beside his staple industrial-size jar of Jif peanut butter, full of mayonnaisey-looking slaw, broccoli salad. When I first saw them on his shelf, I thought, How strange. I could never in a million years picture this man finely slicing broccoli florets, chopping bacon into bits, then mixing them carefully with Craisins and grated cheddar and mayonnaise. Could never in a million years picture him removing a loaf of bread from the oven. That was all the handiwork of this tenuously dry-eyed woman, who’s clearly been crying over Archibald all day and will no doubt cry again. When his pager was buzzing earlier, that was her, wondering where in the hell he was. Probably she made him dinner. I picture a table for two set carefully, a sad flower in a lame vase between the gleaming plates. Some terrible bottle of wine he’d drink in two swallows. Maybe she was wearing something nice.
Or maybe this is her something nice. Maybe she lit candles for him. Maybe they’re still burning. Maybe her whole living room is on fire now.
“I don’t owe this woman anything anyway,” she’s saying now, presumably in response to something Archibald just said. “I don’t owe her a damn thing. In fact, if anything she should thank me. She should be fucking thanking me.”
“She’s right,” I say. “I should be. Thank you.”
I manage to rise up from the bed while they continue a discussion that falls in and out of my hearing.
My boots. I just need to find my boots. There’s that song about boots and walking that my mother loves, that I used to sing. Sung by another woman. Not Peggy but of that era. She was poised. She was thin. She was freedom dancing in high-heeled white boots. Stomp stomp stomp. That’s all I have to do through the white snow. Stomp stomp stomp. And not look back.
I get up and get into my combat boots, which I don’t lace. I pull my cardigan on over my mother’s slip.
I stumble my way toward the door, but it isn’t easy with the drugs, my heart thumping in my chest, the air around me like invisible water, like I’m at the bottom of a lake, feet sinking in tangly weeds, pawing my way forward.
I fall twice on my way up the basement stairs and then stumble out the front door. Now I’m outside in the gently falling snow walking toward where I think, hope, the bus stop is. He’s calling my name but I keep walking, trying to quicken my pace without slipping.
I just need to keep that song in my head about boots being made for walking and that’s just what they’ll do and I’ll be safe. The road is sheer ice and I slip a little as I walk.
I can hear his voice getting closer, but I keep walking, slipping, until I feel him touch my shoulder. I turn around and he is in the snow on his knees. He looks up at me.
He is going to make a speech. He is opening his mouth to say God knows what. More about how he can’t let me go, but he’ll understand if I never want to see him again. More about how unworthy he is of me. More about how insane Britta is. More about how I am the one he really wants.
“Lizzie,” he says, hugging my knees, and I am trying to pry myself loose.
“Asshole!” Britta screams.
I turn and see her charging toward us in the not-too-distant distance, waving a harmonica in the air like a gun. She hurls it and her aim is remarkable. It hits him right in the face. In the mouth.
For what feels like minutes, we both just stand there. Watch the blood gush beautifully, hideously out of his mouth while he burbles, presumably in shock. Eyes blinking. Then she runs over to him. Takes off her terrible cardigan. Underneath, she’s wearing one of those basic scoop-neck tops I have a dozen of at home. She stoppers his mouth with the sweater. Wraps him in her ridiculous scarf. Now she’s saying sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m watching the scene like it’s a still. Then I realize she’s looking at me. “Can you call a taxi?” she says, handing me her phone.
In the hospital waiting room we sit side by side with one empty chair between us for our purses. Archibald is semi-passed out on a gurney nearby. Every now and then we hear him mumble for his harmonica through a mouthful of gauze. From the look of the emergency room, lots of people have been shot and stabbed tonight. Lots of deep cuts and chest pains. Lots of sick babies. Getting hit in the mouth with a harmonica — even a chromatic one — is way down on the list of the doctor’s priorities. The nurse told us it would be a while.
Britta is pretending to flip through dated magazines. I’m staring at the TV.
“You can go, you know,” she says. “Really. I’m the one that hit him. Besides, I think it’ll be a while.”
“No, it’s okay,” I say, like my staying is some sort of sacrifice, like we’re in this together. But actually in my haste to go, I left my wallet in his apartment. Not to mention my keys, my clothes. I’m wearing nothing but the unlaced boots I wedged my feet in when I staggered out the door, my mother’s red night slip stained with Chinese food, and a cardigan splattered with Archibald’s mouth blood. I can’t bring myself to borrow money from Britta and I’m at least an hour’s walk from our apartment. I called Mel a couple of times on the hospital courtesy phone. No answer, no call back, even though I left messages. Maybe she’s out dancing. Or maybe she feels these are my just deserts.
I watch the silent TV on the wall above the sick people and the ugly leather chairs. On the screen, two fat girls in stretch pants are screaming and strangling each other on a stage strewn with overturned chairs. They’re going to kill each other, from the look of it, until two big bald men in black polo shirts suddenly appear to separate them. Along the bottom of the screen is a caption that reads, “I Cheated on You with Your Best Friend!”
I turn to Britta but she’s pointedly flipping through an old copy of Woman’s World. Feigning interest in yarn art. The scarf she used to mop up Archibald’s blood is sticking out of her large purse. It’s a nice purse. The sort my mother would buy. I remind myself that Britta is another country, another sort of terrain, strange and distant from me. That she is bigger than I am. Older. Sadder. More beyond saving. That body-wise, spirit-wise, I’m just a room compared to her sad house.
“Did Archibald ever play you that Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’” I ask her.
For a while she says nothing, just frowns into her magazine at a photo of a wreath made out of dark green pipe cleaners.
“Archibald played a lot of songs,” she says at last.
I look back at the TV.
One of the fat girls has now broken loose from security and has the other girl in a headlock. Behind them, between their abandoned, overturned chairs, a thin, ferrety-looking man sits serenely. This man watches as security separates the fat girls once more. He watches them claw and kick the air helplessly. He watches and he smiles, like such violence and misery are the stuff of life. When he suddenly smiles wide, maybe at something one of the fat girls screams, he reveals a missing incisor. I think of the way Archibald looked after he got hit. How after the shock wore off, he started laughing. Laughed in the taxi all the way to the hospital, the bandage that Britta had loosely shoved in his mouth already soaked through with blood, his laughter making the blood drip hotly down his chin.
“He never played you that song and talked to you about it? About his philosophy?” I ask Britta again. I’m looking at her, but she won’t look at me.
“I really don’t want to talk about this with you. If that’s okay.”
“Okay.” I look at her. I see her chins are tilted upward, quivering. “Your book came in, by the way.”
“What book?” she snaps.
“How to Care for Your Dachshund. You ordered it from me.”
“Oh,” she says, as if she only distantly remembers. “Right.”
“It’s ready for you at the desk. Whenever you want it.”
I watch these laughably obese girls lunge for each other and get pulled apart once more. Their fat arms still reaching out to throttle each other.
Britta stands up suddenly.
“I’m going to get myself something from the cafeteria.” She hesitates, then looks down at me. “You want anything?”
Food. I forgot all about it even though I haven’t eaten in hours. The minute she offers, I feel how my stomach is empty, that I’m starving.
“No thanks,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m not hungry right now. Maybe later.”
I watch her hunched, doomed shape turn away and lumber all the way down to the end of the hospital corridor, then disappear through the swinging doors.