tug, spin, release
From BAD THOUGHTS: Stories by Nada Alic. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Nada Alic.
“What if this is hell?” I’d been repeating it to myself ever since Heather’s little sister, Claire, offered up her grim diagnosis of reality. It was a passing philosophical musing from a slightly buzzed twentysomething wearing cowboy boots and a sash that read bride tribe, but it stuck with me.
“You mean the Pueblo Bonito Pacifica?” I joked, referring to the cheesy all-inclusive resort we had booked for Heather’s bachelorette weekend in Cabo. Our room had gaudy Spanish- style decor and faded cream carpeting that had an Orange County divorcée–type ambiance to it, but no one cared because we needed it only for the express purpose of doing drugs and sleeping. I wanted to remind Claire that this hell seemed fairly benign compared to most people’s, like the arthritic cleaning lady who had come by to unclog the toilet for a second time that day. But I knew what she meant: everyone suffers, but how that suffering is doled out is unique to each person. I was comforted by the thought and nearly offered the platitude about being kind because everyone is fighting a hard battle, but I didn’t know the exact phrasing and had just taken two cookie edibles and was too self-conscious to get it wrong in front of the group. I’d met Heather through my friend Amelia, who couldn’t travel due to health issues, making me a second-tier invite. I was fine with this and had committed myself to consuming twice as much of everything in Amelia’s honor. It’s what she would have wanted.
I was struggling to get into a rhythm with the other women, mostly because my mind was elsewhere. I was waiting for an email that was going to change my life, but the cell reception was weak and my inbox wouldn’t refresh no matter how many times I tugged and released the screen. Days earlier, on a whim, I’d submitted a few poems about birds and spit and the texture of velvet to a prestigious artist-residency program in Upstate New York. The prize involved a monthlong stay in a private cabin, which was enough time for me to finally establish myself as an artist and then figure out a way to stay there for the rest of my life. I could work as a farmhand in exchange for room and board and devote the rest of my time to writing and having deep conversations and casual sex with like-minded people.
I’d been writing poems for as long as I could remember, and my only plan up until now had been to eventually die so that my work could be discovered posthumously. I thought of my poetry as my own personal Voyager floating through space and time, awaiting contact. My poems wouldn’t even have to be great since people tend to be more forgiving of the dead. As a poet, I could think of nothing more romantic.
But the residency was much bigger than that; it was my ticket out. Being a middle school phys ed teacher hadn’t been my original plan. I thought I’d be a gymnast, like one of those muscular girls who run around twirling ribbons in the air, whatever they’re called. Then I turned twelve and my boobs mushroomed practically overnight. Even then, I knew it was over for me. No one aspires to teach gym; it’s just something that happens to you through a series of poor choices and an inability to grasp even basic math.
The funniest part is that I would’ve never known about the residency if I hadn’t overheard Margaret, the English teacher, discussing it in the break room. Apparently she was invited last year and stowed away in a cabin for six weeks, which makes sense, because she suspiciously returned for the fall semester with an entirely new nose. Convenient. Margaret thought she was hot shit because she graduated from an Ivy League and made people call her doctor for some reason, yet there we were in the Eastmont Middle School women’s restroom, separated only by a thin partition, desperately waiting for the other to leave. I wasn’t built for academia; the girls at school terrified me—they only ever wore sports bras and nothing else, and if I made a comment, they accused me of being a pervert and threatened to sue for sexual harassment. The boys reeked of Juul and did nothing to hide their erections, which were constant and hypnotizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, if you want to talk about hell. I wrote poems about how their basketball shorts flapped in the breeze patriotically like flags, but I never showed them to anyone. No one had any idea I could write at all. I hoped that in the coming weeks, I would find out for myself.
Between the email and me were a turquoise infinity pool and a realm of endless possibilities. I did a swan dive into the deep end of the resort pool and swam around inelegantly, splashing like a toddler while the other girls watched because they all refused to get their hair wet. I’ll admit, having no Wi-Fi access for the weekend was exhilarating; it meant I could live in a fantasy world of what if ? for a little while longer. I suddenly understood the point of believing in heaven or saving dessert for later: there was no better drug than anticipation. I imagined it as my reward for getting through the weekend; the bridal-game theatrics and constant socializing would’ve been unbearable without my little hope and the right combination of canned wine and pharmaceuticals, which produced a kind of pleasant fugue state that made the weekend go by quickly, like a dream in a power nap.
It’s not like I didn’t want to tell them about my plan; I’d actually tried to bring it up the night before, sometime after the second round of spicy palomas, but everyone just kept asking me how Amelia was doing and if there was anything they could do, etc. I told them that all she wanted was for us to have fun and to live life to the fullest. Heather lifted her chalice for a cheers and made a speech about how lucky she felt to be surrounded by so many incredible women.
“So well put,” said Jess.
“You have a way with words,” Claire added.
I suddenly hated Heather. Words were my thing. I had a way with them. I waited for the right moment to recite a poem out loud. I imagined their faces softening in awe, the background music and chatter stopping, and time itself collapsing into the present moment. All eyes on me, for once. One of them would slow clap and the rest would join in. They would beg for more, but I’d feign modesty and say, “That’s enough for one night! Maybe tomorrow.” But I was thwarted by Candace, a retired pageant girl, who started telling a story about her secret email correspondence with her husband’s mistress, thus setting the evening’s mood, which included Claire’s secret abortion and subsequent reconciliation with Jesus, followed by Jess’s body dysmorphia. Then once again, back to Candace and her base- less fear that everyone in the group secretly hated her and talked about it whenever she left the room. The group hurried to comfort her, making a big show of how much they valued her, how none of them could believe she wanted to be their friend and so on.
The night quickly devolved into a teary-eyed indictment of All Men Ever, beginning with their fathers, who either loved them too much or not enough. Everyone’s stories began to blend together. I watched as each woman drove her emotional car off the lot; the potency of each revelation depreciated as soon as it had been said aloud. I was glad I kept mine to myself. No one pressured me to participate, but I caught wind of a rumor going around that I was planning some sort of big surprise because I was “acting weird” and kept wandering off from the group. I hadn’t planned anything, so when the fireworks erupted on the final night, I panicked and told Heather I had arranged for them in her honor. In a way, it was a gift. She deserved a fantasy of her own. They all did.
I instinctively checked my email as soon as my return flight landed. It was still too early for me to be getting an email, but a part of me hoped that whoever read my work had been so com- pletely blown away that they couldn’t help themselves. It seemed insane that life-changing news could fit inside the body of an email. Emails were for birthday e-vites and seasonal sales, not for this. Imagining it sandwiched between spam wire-transfer requests and UPS shipping confirmations disturbed me. What about a gold-embossed letter in the mail or a man who comes to your door holding balloons? I quickly scanned through my twenty-three unread emails, and not one of them contained the subject line “Congratulations.” I let out a loud sigh of relief that I’d been holding in all weekend. I wanted to be showered and well rested when I opened it. I wanted to put on a nice blouse. It would’ve been disrespectful and reckless to open it at the airport, among the noises and the smells of tourists and their distant relatives waving at arrivals.
I lost the bachelorette group at baggage claim and practi- cally ran to the taxi stand with a current of adrenaline pumping inside me. Maybe my chronic anxiety wasn’t anxiety at all but a state of prolonged anticipation for my true purpose to reveal itself. Maybe my hope had gone unchecked for too long and had degenerated into a neurosis. I was awake now, though; I was paying attention. All it took was some time away to clear my head.
When I got home, I unpacked my suitcase and threw every- thing in the laundry, which had a domino effect: I decided to empty the contents of my closet and lay it all out on the floor so I could look at everything I owned. Something about com- ing home from a trip made me reassess my entire life. My time away gave me a fresh perspective and confirmed my suspicion that I wasn’t fulfilling my potential and needed to make some moves. I would begin by purging. I didn’t have much, but I could always have less. I threw my open-toed shoes in the Donate pile along with a puffy down-filled coat and a graphic T-shirt that read caffeine queen that I’d never had the courage to wear in public. I tossed artifacts of a past life: a body-con dress, low-cut jeans embroidered with rhinestones (why?), and a lone platform stiletto that I had no memory of buying. Who am I? I thought while pushing my fist through a pair of neon fishnet stockings. I filled three large trash bags and moved on to scrubbing the scuffs on my walls with a Magic Eraser and stripping the bed to wash the sheets. Sitting on my bare mat- tress, I reviewed my social media profiles for no other reason than to remind myself I existed. I liked being contained safely inside a grid, a living avatar of a self.
What if this is hell?
“Can you read this?”
A wispy little voice startled me so badly, I screamed and threw a shoe in its direction.
“I got a concussion. I’m pretty sure—my vision is blurry.” It was my roommate, Tom, whom I had forgotten existed. He was holding a tub of margarine. “I can’t see the expiration date,” he said.
“It expired last week,” I said. I thought if I didn’t acknowl- edge his concussion, he’d leave my room. He was always informing me of some new ailment he had.
“I was picking up an olive from under the table when my phone rang, and I sprang up and hit my head really hard.”
“That sucks,” I said.
“I’ve been in bed since you left.” “Why don’t you go to the doctor?” “I don’t have health insurance.” “Right. Bummer.” I sighed.
“Yeah, I just can’t afford it,” he explained.
I wish I could say I found Tom on the internet, but I didn’t.
I’d known him for years before he moved in—not super well, just well enough to know he wouldn’t kill me and that if it ever came down to it, I could easily overpower him. He had respira- tory issues and slow reflexes; it wouldn’t even be that hard. We’d met at an improv class years ago, and I’d sometimes watch him do stand-up comedy on Tuesday nights at Tempo Cantina. He joked about his psoriasis and his estranged father’s new fam- ily. I thought he was funny in a sad way, but offstage he was just sad. No one told me this about comedians.
Occasionally I would hear what sounded like a conversation happening in his bedroom until he’d start repeating the same sentence over and over and I’d realize he was recording a video of himself. “Hey guys!” Pause. Cough. “What’s up, my dudes!” Pause. “What up, what up? Please like and subscribe. Yo, like and subscribe or I’ll kill myself. Jk, jk, I love you guys.” I considered it low- grade domestic abuse.
The longer he lived with me, the less I knew him or wanted to know him, and the distance between us grew over time like mold. When he moved in, he’d assumed we’d be more like best friends, but that seemed like too much of a commitment considering how often we passed each other on the way to the bathroom or the kitchen. Tom’s life was a series of unfortu- nate and self-inflicted tragedies. Comedy wasn’t going so well, and his dog, Churro, had recently gone missing. Tom had got- ten stomach ulcers from stress and started drinking more than ever, which led to weight gain and cystic acne. No one wanted to have sex with him, which wasn’t even so bad because his antidepressants made him impotent anyway. I wasn’t sure how much of this was true, but I wanted nothing to do with it.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
“It’s the life I chose.” He shrugged.
I checked my email before returning to my piles. It was Sunday, so I kept my expectations low. There was an email from Heather to the bachelorette thread thanking everyone for an amazing time, followed by responses from the other girls, little inside jokes about diarrhea and hot tubs. I swiftly deleted it, annoyed by the implication that we would all keep in touch. We were strangers, united only by our separate relationships with Heather, which was not enough of a shared interest to sus- tain a friendship.
Deleting felt good. I opened an email from the assistant vice principal alerting me to another student’s near-fatal exposure to nuts. “For the safety and well-being of our student body, please help us in maintaining a nut-free environment.” Delete! There was another email from an outraged mother who’d obtained an incriminating photo of a discarded bag of trail mix in my trash bin. “Traces of nut particles remain in the atmosphere for hours; this behavior is wildly irresponsible. If something hap- pens to my son, there will be blood on your hands.” Jimmy’s mom was so paranoid, and it was extra disappointing to find out they were in cahoots since I thought Jimmy and I were cool; we were both Seinfeld fans and quoted it constantly. I guess you never really know a person. Delete.
After that, I pressed select all and deleted all my emails, even the old ones I had kept thinking that one day, on my death- bed, I’d be bored enough to revisit them and glad I’d saved them all. All I wanted was a clean white space of nothing: unblem- ished by the past and primed for the future.
After that, I couldn’t stop. I kept refreshing my email dozens, sometimes hundreds, of times a day. I barely noticed I was doing it; I’d be doing something else, putting in a contact or driving on the freeway, and suddenly I’d be mindlessly pulling my thumb down and refreshing. There was nothing, but there would always be a brief moment when it could be something, and I wanted to live inside that moment forever. For a couple weeks, my life glinted with an ephemeral quality. Something was about to happen. As with any high-functioning addict, everything, including my job, became more bearable. Wip- ing down wrestling mats and collecting used jerseys wasn’t as much of a chore anymore. I was like a ghost floating above my body—Who is this woman on her hands and knees, scrub- bing wildly? Look at her go! I was teaching my students about consent and how periods work with gusto, knowing that my life had become the eve of another life, a better one. Farewell, demons! Farewell, little shits! Except Brian: he was autistic and a real sweet boy, a total gentleman. I might’ve taken him with me if the circumstances were different.
One Friday afternoon, I was checking my email while the class ran laps around the track. Only a few students actually ran; most walked, and some just sat in the grass, also look- ing at their phones. The students and I shared an unspoken agreement that if I looked at my phone, they could also look at their phones, but I drew the line at sexy photoshoots. One time Mandy posted a photo of herself jutting her butt out on the soccer field with me in the background, napping on the bleach- ers in plain view. I asked her to delete it, and she said I was infringing on her rights and started quoting the Constitution incorrectly until I grew tired and gave up.
While I thumbed away at the screen, a fight broke out between two boys in the class. I let it go on for a few seconds, hoping that whatever they were trying to work out just neede to be resolved on an animal level and that my interference would ruin the natural order of things. A crowd formed, shout- ing as the boys tumbled, almost sensually, in the dirt. For a moment I pretended it was for my honor and quietly joined in on the chanting. But then Lisa, the class narc, started film- ing with her phone, and I screamed, “Enough!” The boys kept going, so I ordered the class to go inside to change and wash up while I figured out what to do. I thought about taking off my clothes to create a distraction or throwing a towel over them like caged birds, but I did neither of those things. I watched for a while until the shop teacher, Mr. Krugman, came outside. I blew my whistle and waved at him for backup. He tossed his cigarette butt and sprinted over like a cop. I could see the vein in his forehead swelling like an erection. Everyone feared Mr. Krugman, including me. There was a rumor going around that he had gone to prison for trafficking exotic animals and had loose affiliations to neo-Nazi groups online, but I had started that last one because he was such an asshole.
“Cut the shit!” he yelled, grabbing one of the boys’ legs. I heard low grunts and heavy breathing as I walked away and left them to it. I continued walking all the way to my car, where I briefly dozed in the back seat until I heard the bell ring. I awoke to the disembodied voice of Principal Boyle calling me to the office over the intercom. I assumed it had something to do with giving my witness account of the fight, but there was Jimmy with the school nurse. His face was bloated and red. He looked like an adorable pug.
“Ms. Friedman, are you responsible for setting a rat trap in your classroom?”
The school had a rat infestation, and whenever I asked Rudy the janitor to handle it, he told me that as long as “these shit-heads” kept leaving food in their lockers, the rats would keep showing up, no matter what, so there was no point.
“It’s a humane trap,” I said. I’d set up a little cage with a spoonful of peanut butter as bait.
“You can’t bring peanut butter in here. This is a nut-free zone. Look at Jimmy’s face.”
“Who cares about nuts! We’re overrun with rodents!” “Let Rudy handle that,” said Principal Boyle.
“Serenity now!” I joked, shaking my fists in the air, hoping to get Jimmy’s attention.
Jimmy kept his eyes on the floor. He knew it wasn’t my fault; his reaction had nothing to do with the trap. He’d acquired a taste for peanut M&M’s, knowing they could very well kill him. His girlfriend, Pamela, told me about it last week after things got awkward between Jimmy and me. Pamela was a theater kid with an amazing vocal range, but there was some brooding darkness in her that I recognized as a fellow artist. I wanted her to think I was cool, so I’d promised not to say any- thing. She said it had started out innocently enough, just one or two to see what all the hype was about. Then a couple more. Soon, he was hooked. She said it was thrilling to see how many he could eat before his throat started to close up. If it ever got too intense, he would let her stab him with an EpiPen. “Imag- ine that kind of passion,” she’d said. I wanted that kind of love: to love something so much, it could kill you.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, Jimmy,” I said, taking the blame. I had no other option. Also what’s the worst that could happen to me—I’d get fired? Ha!
“I’m sorry, Ms. Friedman,” said Principal Boyle, handing me what looked like a prepared termination letter.
I will admit, I did not see that coming. I had no choice but to take it as another sign that the Universe was clearing the path for my true life’s purpose. I wasn’t completely delusional; I was aware of the possibility that the residency might not work out. Only five people would be accepted out of thousands of submissions, but I had to act as if I might be one of them. I’d been reading a lot of books on mind power and manifesting abundance in the quantum field. I’d even packed a suitcase and canceled my gym membership and my HBO subscription as a way of saying yes to the Universe. I also planned to delete my email account once it happened. My refreshing days would be over; what a relief.
Amelia took me to lunch the next day to get the full recap of Heather’s bachelorette party. So much had happened since then, I could barely remember it.
“What’s with you?” she asked. “What? Nothing.”
“Can you put your phone away?” she asked, violently stab- bing at a grape tomato in her salad.
“I was just checking something.” “Who is it, Jason?”
His name was an electric shock. The way she said it, too, with her mouth wide open, wet and exposed. Jason and I had dated unofficially for nearly a year until he slowly stopped responding to my messages, so I guess he must have died. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in months, rest in peace.
“No, actually,” I said.
She smiled with a mouth full of romaine. She looked like a grazing cow. I always suspected she secretly had a crush on Jason but whatever, we were never a couple, so it was none of my business. Weird for her to bring him up, though, no?
“I’m just waiting to hear some news,” I said. “Are you pregnant or something?”
Ha! Impossible. Jason was the last guy I’d slept with, and that was seven months ago, but seriously, why was she harping on him? She knew how sensitive I was. He was the only person I let read my poems, and he said I reminded him of Patti, as in Patti Smith, as if he knew her personally. I took that to mean he thought I was skinny. He liked to refer to our relationship sta- tus as “hanging out” because he preferred to take things slow. He approached everything in life with the same excruciating slowness, laboring over an unfinished screenplay and a novel for the last six years. He cited uncompromising perfectionism as one of his best qualities. I think he was waiting to die before he found success, too.
As a sensitive artist, he was moody and unpredictable. If he let me in too much by, say, letting me sleep over, he would over- correct by ignoring me for days without explanation. I would wait and wait for a call or a text. If Amelia or my mom ever called me during those times, I’d get a full-blown panic attack and scream at them for poisoning me with false hope. Some- times I’d throw my phone across the room and retrieve it like a dog. Other times I’d speak to it lovingly, like an injured bird incapable of understanding human language but somehow able to sense my good intentions. I would’ve given anything to be with him. I would’ve died, but not died died. I don’t know why people say that. Maybe what they really mean is that they’ rather be a stranger to themselves than a stranger to the whole world.
The intensity of being ignored was only matched by seeing his name pop up on my phone. It was an indescribable rush, like finally finding out that God exists and you, of all people, are his favorite. You only get a few of those moments in life, when time stops and everything is easy. Then you spend the rest of it either trying to re-create that moment or trying to forget it ever happened. I don’t know which one is worse. I was trying hard to create new moments since all my old ones involved Jason, and I wasn’t sure how triumphant getting someone to occasion- ally penetrate you was.
The last time I saw him, I didn’t know it was the last time. Probably because he said, “I’ll see you later.” I tried contact- ing him for months and never heard anything. I thought I saw him once on the street, crouching down and tying his shoe. I was driving by, and when I turned my car around, he was gone. A demented part of my brain still thought he was scared because he loved me too much. I started seeing a hypnothera- pist who made me perform this whole cord-cutting ceremony to let him go. She instructed me to put on ambient instrumental music and burn incense, but I didn’t have any, so I just burned a Febreze deodorizing candle instead. Then she told me to bind my feet with black yarn and remember that time Jason used my bathroom and left a tiny poop floating in the toilet bowl and how gross I thought that was. I don’t know if it worked, but when it was over, I felt lighter. I was better, more normal. Like, even if he texted me right now, I wouldn’t even flinch; I would be like, God look at this loser, how pathetic. Delete! Delete!
“I’m just waiting to hear about an artist-residency thing, whatever, it’s boring,” I said.
“I didn’t know you were into that stuff,” she said.
“Yeah well, you never asked.” Amelia was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent most of last year in chemotherapy, and suddenly everyone started treating her like a saint. Once I found out she had an 80 percent survival rate, I’d started resent- ing how everything was always about her.
“Well, I’m asking you now!” Amelia tightened the knot on her babushka. Her hair was growing in patches and she still didn’t have any eyebrows. I told myself not to brag about my future until her hair reached bob length.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” I said. All I wanted to do was go home and stare at my phone.
“I feel the same way. I only have one more surgery to go, just to reposition my nipples,” she said.
I was sucking on my smoothie straw and barely listening. I closed my eyes and warmed my face in a block of sunlight like it had been placed there just for me. I pictured the residency based on photos from the website; it was located on an idyl- lic farm with dogs and chickens and therapeutic mini horses. There were individual cabins and an old Victorian schoolhouse where meals were prepared and served by diabetic grandmoth- ers. I imagined myself seated at a giant oak desk with my glasses sliding down to the base of my nose, journaling about clouds. I’d wear a coiled-snake braid on my head with furious wisps and a long skirt with big tortoiseshell buttons, like a pio- neer woman. I wanted my smoothie to go on forever; I could have drowned myself in pureed chocolate banana until I threw up. I started to get teary-eyed just thinking about it: how happy I was but also how sad it was to be this happy over nothing. Over a dream.
“Are you crying?” Amelia asked. “It’s not a big deal, m doctor said there’d be hardly any downtime,” she said, rubbing my back.
I wiped my eyes with my shirt. “Oh good, that’s good to hear,” I said. I’d keep my secret joy in my chest until I could safely enjoy it later on, in the privacy of my own space.
When I came home, Tom was cradling a small wet dog in the hallway.
“He’s back, can you believe it?” “Who?”
The whole apartment smelled like rum and lasagna. Tom swayed with the dog drunkenly. The dog was not Churro. For starters, Churro was a Pomeranian, and this dog was some kind of terrier. I wanted to tell Tom that he’d stolen someone else’s dog, but he looked so happy. It was nice to see him like that for a change. In the morning he’d figure it out on his own, but until then I’d let him bear witness to a miracle.
“Never do that again, okay?” I watched Tom shake the tiny animal as he swung from euphoric sobbing to angry scolding. He nuzzled his head against the dog’s feral mouth. “Promise?” It was some kind of emotional jazz performance, from hyper- ventilating to spontaneous giggling, followed by a long, self- indulgent weeping solo. It was all coming out; every emotion perfectly right and justifiably expressed, simply because it was felt. His body couldn’t believe this was actually happening. Churro was alive.
“He looks hungry. Let’s go find him something to eat, yeah?” I said calmly. I took Tom by the hand and gently guided him into the kitchen. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’d walked Tom to his room after a night of drinking, then rolled him onto his stomach and taken off his shoes while he lay there half dead. I patted Tom’s shoulder while he filled the water bowl, using my free hand to check my phone. Knowing the email would arrive at any minute made me so aroused, I had developed a Pavlovian response to the act of tugging the base of the screen and watching the little circle spin and update. Tug, spin, release. More, more, more. Again, again, again. If Tom weren’t home, I would have jerked off to it right there on the kitchen floor.
“Do you want a drink?” Tom asked, already pouring one. “Sure,” I said. Knowing I’d probably be moving out soon put me in a celebratory mood. Farewell, dumpy apartment! Farewell, loser! I turned on the Bluetooth speaker and played a little up-tempo Steely Dan song. This is your big debut / It’s like a dream come true. We raised our glasses, which were filled with something brown and perfumy. Tom tried to cheers and missed; his eyes were glossy and he could barely stand upright. Suddenly shy, he put the dog down and crouched on the floor.
“I love you, you know that?” he said, looking away from me. “Love you too, man,” I said.
“No, I mean it.”
“You couldn’t tell?”
“I thought you were just depressed.” “You’re the girl of my dreams!”
He sighed. Fake Churro sensed his distress and came over to comfort him, licking the spittle off the side of his mouth. The old me would have run away. The new me took pity on Tom; she knew what it was like to sit on the floor, begging to be loved. Besides, when he woke up in the morning and realized he had the wrong dog, he would be devastated. I didn’t want to add to his anguish; he already had so little to live for. The heat of my phone buoyed me through the uncomfortable silence. I’d be gone soon, and I’d never have to see him again.
“I think you’re a cool guy,” I said. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said, squatting down beside him. This was the closest I’d ever felt to Jason. I could see why he liked leading me on; I felt powerful and empty and godlike. I was drunk on my own magnetism and also literally drunk.
I wanted to see how far I could go with it, so I put my face right up to Tom’s. His eyes were half-closed and his face was pink and puffy from dehydration. I opened my mouth slightly and waited. He pushed my chin down with his thumb and pressed his lips against my forehead. It was like getting blessed by a priest or a kiss from a baby: a wet nothing. He held me in his embrace and drifted out of consciousness. I rolled him off me and he slumped farther down, his torso bent impossibly to one side like a deflated air mattress.
I went to my room, collapsed on my bed, and rested my phone on my sternum, my body vibrating with purpose. I took the phone and started typing a text message to Jason:
Just thought you should know Delete.
Last night was incredible, baby. Thank you for the Tesla. Oops, wrong number. So embarrassing. Delete.
How are you? Delete.
Listen, I’m totally over what happened with us, I just wanted to tell you that I’m a big deal now and you’ll probably be seeing my poems in the near future and REST ASSURED they’re not, in any way, about you. They’re about other men, European ones, oligarchs, and famous athletes with those sculpted Adonis belt muscles that I said I don’t like on guys, but guess what, I actually do. I live with my new boyfriend now, he’s in the entertainment industry and we share a dog named Churro. Things are getting pretty seri- ous. Please don’t ever contact me and if you try, I’ll be in Upstate New York writing poems about the shape of my perfect pink asshole. Select all. Delete!
I got up and went to the bathroom, thinking a change of scenery would be reason enough for another inbox refresh, based on nothing other than those stories about celebrities who seemed to always be in the shower or on the toilet when they find out they’ve been nominated for some big award. I sat on the toilet and eked out a few droplets of pee to make it real. Tug, spin, release: nothing. I got a text from Amelia asking me to drive her home after surgery tomorrow: They said I can’t take the bus if I’m heavily sedated. I tried not to engage whenever she was being dramatic.
It was late, so I changed into my pajamas and crawled into bed. I fell asleep, still clutching my phone in my right hand. I had a dream where the school’s paper shredder was broken and everyone acted like it was my fault but no one said it out loud. I tried to fix it, but I had no idea what I was doing, so I offered to eat everyone’s documents, page by page, as punishment for my ineptitude. At first I tried crumpling them into balls, but the were too dry to swallow, so I dipped them in water first and that helped. People would say, “Are you sure?” and I’d say, “Are you kidding? They’re delicious.” Then Jason appeared and handed me his birth certificate. I knew that if I ate it, he would no lon- ger exist. There would be no record of him, and he would dis- appear from planet Earth. I put it in my mouth and concealed it under my tongue. I couldn’t bring myself to swallow.
I woke up mid-dream; it was still night, and everything looked gauzy and blue. Without thinking, I reached for my phone. Tug, spin, release—all in one effortless motion. Two new emails appeared. The first was from my bank, asking if I had just spent forty-seven dollars on compression socks (I had, so what?), and the other had a subject line that read: “Summer Residency Application Results.” I thought my eyes were play- ing a trick on me, so I rubbed them until blood-vessel fireworks obscured my field of vision. I stared blankly at the screen until the sparks settled and there it was again. Oh. I turned the phone facedown on the mattress. What’s the rush? I thought. It was the middle of the night; what good would it do me to know right now? I could wait a little while longer. I could wait a lifetime.
I looked around my room, comforted by the sameness of it. It was my very own possibility fortress, a time capsule for future generations to visit my humble beginnings before every- thing changed for me. I looked down at my legs, which were pulsating like an exposed human nerve. I felt a soggy-paper sensation climb up my throat, and I ran to the bathroom sink to try to force it out, but there was nothing. I imagined my insides hardening like dried papier-mâché. I hurled my face into an old beach towel and let out a muffled scream. I did a little lap around my bed, then climbed in slowly as if descending into an ice bath. I fingered the cool plastic rim of my phone case, the flimsy layer protecting the metal container where my future was stored. Then I picked it up and threw it across the room, where it landed softly in a pile of dirty laundry. I stretched my arms and legs out like a starfish, rolled the covers over my head, and went back to sleep.
Nada is the author of this debut story collection, out now on Vintage and is working on a forthcoming novel with Knopf. She lives in LA.