GROWN AND OTHER STORIES
By Kayla Rutledge
Honors Thesis Creative Writing Program
Department of English and Comparative Literature University of North Carolina
This manuscript is being submitted to the Honors Program and the Carolina Digital Repository at UNC Chapel Hill for archival purposes only. As author and copyright holder, I retain and reserve all rights to any and all publication, dissemination, and digital online display, none of which may occur without my express written permission.
“father, fill me w/ beauty & call me beyond
to a training in weight & grandeur & the glory of small birds.
& father, teach me yr depths & yr heights & the silences that fill you
and fill me! pull back the tatter of ribs & take out the stone that sits there,
replace it w/ the gospel of dawn birds—father, if only
the right words were here this world would be born anew—what is this thing
you’ve placed in me that shines w/ precarious substance?”
– Matthew Pfaff, “noctilucent”
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
I’ve put off writing this preface because I don’t want to accept that my life needs a preface right now. I thought that I could write a better thesis than this one, even in the face of a global pandemic. It would only take some white-knuckling and gritted teeth, a few late nights and a handful of early mornings. I still worry that by writing this preface, I am not a Real Writer. After all, a Real Writer should be driven to write when things get hard. Isn’t that what writers always say? That writing is their escape?
I don’t think writing is my escape. It’s something more delicate than that. It’s the way I make sense of the world, and particularly, my inner life. I don’t know if I will be able to make sense of this time in my life for a very long time. Here’s what I know about this thesis: It is the best thing that I can write for you right now, as I am, while maintaining some semblance of sanity and love for writing. I could have written you a better one if I were not hindered by the following problems, issues, and practicalities: a global pandemic, the cancellation of my senior year, my own stubbornness, my own perfectionism, my own laziness, my own need to be in the right, the general shutdown of society, the impending anxiety of life after college, and a thousand other factors that are neither here nor there.
Above my desk, there is a print of Martini’s The Annunciation. I like it because it’s the only painting of the Annunciation I’ve ever seen where Mary looks angry. She has turned up the collar of her coat. The words from the angel are white-hot, almost carved into the paint. They look as though they are being flung at her through the air. She is not quite sure about this heavenly messenger; she is haloed with gold and still, so furiously, doubtfully human. I love Martini, that he thought this half-second of fear important enough to paint onto a cathedral wall.
There is a pause to be painted, before you accept that the world has changed, and it will be scary just because it is scary. This is a collection of stories I wrote when I was twenty years old. In almost every way, I was not a serious writer until I had written them. I wanted to do them more justice than I have done them here. I hope I can give you nothing better than this: I was working on them up until the last moment, as I lowered the collar of my coat and tried to open myself to the changing world. I wrote them in a pause, and then I “stepped, as [I] had to, forward”1.
An earlier draft of “Chicken” won the 2019 James Hurst Prize in Fiction from North Carolina State University.
For Pam Durban, who taught me how to write
Table of Contents
Frankie Bennett and the Skull 11 The Laundromat in Apartment 8B 25
Ticketed People 27
Night Lights 41
The Hat 42
The Pool 52
Amphibious Things 55
The night before I put my mother in assisted living, I killed her pet chicken, and after years of trying not to, finally broke her heart. The chicken in question was the meanest animal I’d ever met and had been the only living thing on my family’s apple orchard besides my mother for the past fifteen years, ever since my father died of a heart attack one May afternoon. We had been packing for two weeks; now I was out of paid leave from work and we were both out of patience. It was eleven, and we were set to leave for Charlotte in the morning, but there was still the problem of the chicken.
“No. No way.” I said from my spot on the floor, my back against the cupboard.
“I think it’s a great idea,” my mother said, setting the kettle on the stovetop with a bang. I had gone through the car for thirty minutes to find the kettle, stuffed in between a box of Estée Lauder makeup and the Cabbage Patch doll that had haunted our living room since before I was born. My mother always had tea at night, even tonight.
“That— it’s not— Mom, the facility won’t let you,” I said.
“It says on the box you can use it to transport any animal under twenty pounds.” “It’s a cat carrier.”
“Well, Natalie, what do you want me to say? They didn’t have a chicken carrier at the store.” We paused and looked at the green plastic carrier sitting in the corner.
“It’s huge.” I said. “Did you buy the most expensive one?” “That,” my mother said, “is not important.”
“Look,” I said, trying to be delicate. “If it were up to me, you could take her. But this place has rules. Besides, where would she go? You won’t have a backyard there.”
“If you moved in with me—”
“I don’t want to live with you,” she said. “You’re always working. If you moved back to Asheville —”
“I can’t move back here. My job is in Charlotte. You know that.” I felt a headache coming on. “Besides, that’s not the point.”
“The point,” my mother said firmly, handing me a mug of chamomile tea, “is that I’m not leaving without my chicken. So that’s that.”
I moved to turn off the burner under the kettle. “I was going to get that,” she said, looking flustered.
“I know,” I said. “Sorry.” There was an uncomfortable silence. I tried not to look at the new plaster on the wall behind the stove. Three months ago, my mother had left a towel on the stovetop while she waited for rice to cook. It caught fire and painted long, charred streaks up the wall. A neighbor called 911 after smelling smoke. There had been other, smaller things,
forgetting to charge her cell phone so my calls went to voicemail for two weeks straight, using the GPS to get to the grocery store she’d been going to for forty years, but the fire was the last straw. I started looking at assisted living the next day, even though my mother insisted she was fine. Maybe, deep down, I hoped things would be different between us if she lived nearby. She wouldn’t be so alone. We would be better to one another. I told myself I could learn how to take care of her, even though she had always taken care of me. We wouldn’t argue just so we had something to talk about.
“Please? So she can get used to it.” She stood at the backdoor, wearing one of my father’s old flannels. The April air drifted in, sticky and sweet. I thought about how many memories I had in this spot on the kitchen floor. I knew that when we left for Charlotte the next morning, they would move permanently into the past. A sadness swelled in me and broke.
“I don’t —,” I said, knowing I was going to follow her anyway. I could tell by the look on her face that she knew it too. She walked out the back door and into the darkened yard.
In the yard, my mother held the carrier open while I tried, through a combination of clucking noises and blind faith, to wrangle Alexander from the henhouse. She shouted unhelpful things like, “Angle your hands,” and “Let her know she’s safe with you,” while Alexander glared at me with evil, beady chicken eyes.
On the morning of my father’s funeral, my mother went out without a word and came back with a russet chick hopping around a cardboard box. She set the box on her lap and stared straight ahead during the service, as though daring the preacher to complain that Alexander was chirping loudly through his sermon. No one suggested that Alexander was probably not the best name for a female chicken.
“She needs to see that you’re in control,” my mother hollered, balancing the carrier on her hip. “Put your shoulders into it.” I got a chicken wing to the eye and sputtered.
When she was with my father, my mother laughed until she snorted. She let him leave his shoes all over the house and didn’t get upset. When she was with me, she told me to stop
graduated college two weeks before my father died. After his funeral, I didn’t even go back to the house. I didn’t know what to say. I just got in my car and drove back to Charlotte. I started an entry-level job at the bank and left my mother with eight hundred trees and a single chicken. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. She’s never even brought it up.
“I can’t,” I said, sitting back on my heels. “I can’t get her out.” “Well, she doesn’t know you, honey, she’s afraid.”
I blew my hair off my forehead.
“Grab her under the wings. She doesn’t peck, so the most she can do is holler at you.” “Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I closed my eyes and grabbed blindly at Alexander, clutching her feathered body tightly. She started squawking loudly. “Do you have the carrier?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “Quick, put her in!”
I pulled the chicken out of the coop, wings flapping. Suddenly, one of my fingers stung hot with pain. “She pecked me,” I shrieked, dropping the chicken. Alexander took off, running faster than I thought a chicken could, squawking all the way. In the darkness, she disappeared almost instantly into the orchard. I groaned and grabbed my smarting finger.
“You let her go,” my mother said. “You let her go!” “I’m sorry,” I said. “You said she didn’t peck!”
“This is so typical. So typical. You didn’t want me to take her,” she said, stomping her foot like a child.
I sighed. “Let’s just go inside. It’s late. It’s dark. We can find her in the morning.” “I am not. Leaving. Without. That. Chicken.”
My mother shook her head, like she did when she was too angry to speak, and barreled past me into the house. By the time I reached the back door, she was already headed back out with two flashlights. They made her face look luminescent and round, like the moon. She shone the light in my face. “You lost her, so we’re going to go look for her.”
Thirty minutes later, we had walked a mile down one of the orchard rows and were starting back up a second one. The chicken was absolutely nowhere in sight. Cicadas howled and fell silent again, in and out, like a tide. It was April, and still, the orchard smelt vaguely of apples, sticky-sweet and earthy. I got a sudden mental image of my mother sniffing a feather like a bloodhound and had to stifle my laughter.
I wondered how to get her in the car if we didn’t find the chicken. Could I get another chicken in the morning? Where did people even buy chickens? Maybe I could put a Benadryl in her tea. I missed my job at the bank, the easily solvable problems, the endless spreadsheets. I never had to drug anybody there, and there were absolutely no chickens. I hadn’t meant for all this to happen. “You know,” I said, “There’s this great coffee shop near the facility. We could go together once you move in.” A peace offering.
“I only drink tea,” my mother said, drawing her coat tighter around herself. “They have tea, too.”
We kept going. I tripped over a wheelbarrow that one of the orchard hands left out, and it made a metallic smack that reverberated down my shin. Mom didn’t even stop to check on me.
“Can we please go back?” I said, too loudly, holding my leg.
“Mom, it was a ton of work to get you into this place.”
“No one asked you to do it, Natalie.” She turned back around and kept walking.
“See, Mom, this is exactly why you can’t stay here alone. Because you’d do stupid stuff like running around the orchard at night. It’s not safe. You can’t take care of yourself anymore.”
She turned off her flashlight and I couldn’t see her face anymore. Her voice came out of the darkness, thin and quiet, all the anger bled out of it. “I understand that I have to leave. I understand that I have to give up my home. But I would like to find my chicken. You may go back to the house.” She paused. “I won’t go without Alexander. I don’t want to be by myself.”
I tugged at the collar of my jacket. “Mom—”
“What?” She turned the flashlight on again. Her hair was falling out of its bun on the left side, drifting around her face in waves. In the shadowed light, she looked stooped and small. I felt guilty, as if I had yelled at a child who didn’t know any better. That was worse than anything, to feel that way about her. It was so upside-down and wrong.
“Nothing.” I said. “You’re right. Let’s just keep looking.”
Somewhere around three in the morning, I was beginning to feel more asleep than awake. Even my mother looked ready to go back, and I almost pressed the issue again when I saw shapes rippling in my peripheral vision. Without thinking, I turned my flashlight, already anticipating that nothing was there. But then I saw Alexander, happily pecking around a tree.
She looked and gasped, our flashlights drawing a twin halo around the chicken. I hopped out of excitement, and Alexander looked straight at us with those creepy chicken eyes. I walked slowly toward her, arms outstretched.
I was still ten feet away when I saw a streak of russet at the edge of the light. Startled, I dropped my flashlight. Scrambled around for it in the dirt. There was a rustle of feathers and a muffled crack. By the time I got the light back on, Alexander was in the fox’s mouth, and she was definitely, undeniably dead.
“No! Hey — get out of here!” I shone the flashlight in the fox’s eyes. It jumped back, Alexander still in its mouth. “Hey! Give me that!” I really shouted then, jumping up and down, slapping my hands against my thighs. My mother was shouting too. The fox, startled, dropped Alexander and leapt back into the underbrush. We rushed towards what used to be my mother’s only chicken.
“Oh,” my mother said. “Oh.” She sank awkwardly to her knees.
“Mom, don’t —”, I said, but she reached out to touch the crumpled body.
I swung the beam of my flashlight towards her hand. Something in the gesture reminded me of her pressing a palm to my forehead to feel for fever. There was less blood than I thought there would be, only a mass of dampened feathers, the neck bent at a wrong angle, a tinny, raw smell in the air. Somehow, the fact that it all looked so normal made me feel sicker than if the chicken had been a tangle of pink, luminous skin.
much warmer than it looked and stitched with thick, sturdy thread. Last winter, when it came back into fashion, I snagged it from the musty closet under the stairs.
My mother bundled the body in the coat like a newborn and stood with concentrated effort, tucking wisps of hair back away from her face. I thought suddenly back to when I was a kid, and I used to go play at my friend Maggie’s house, where her father always told her mother that she looked beautiful. Back then, I thought that no one would ever call my mother beautiful. It just wasn’t something she thought about. But she did look sort of beautiful in that moment. I wanted to carry the bundle for her, but I already knew she would refuse. Instead, I trailed behind, trying to shine the flashlight out ahead so that she could see the way.
I found her sitting on the back porch steps, the house behind her like a hulking, hollow thing. It looked deflated somehow, as if it knew my mother was going away. Next to her, I suddenly wished I was a child again, so that I could put my hand in hers and let it disappear into the curve of her palm. Along with the wish came thought that I would never again be small enough to do that — let someone wrap their whole hand around mine — and I felt a deep blue sadness pass over my whole body. My mother put her head on my shoulder. The air smelled like rust. Every so often, Alexander’s feathers shuddered in the wind.
We sat for so long that my eyes were heavy and half-closed by the time she spoke. “We should put her back.”
“Hm — back?”
“In the,” — She made a halfhearted attempt at a wave — “orchard.”
The thought made me feel vaguely nauseous. “That’s — no. We should bury her or something.” She shrugged and turned away. “I’m serious, Mom. Stay here. I’ll get the shovels.”
I got the shovels. Outside, my mother was still just sitting on the edge of the porch. “Come on, Mom.” We walked to a ridge at the edge of the orchard. Her limp was more
pronounced now. The tinny smell of blood on the wind made me want to gag. I looked down at the shovel, scuffed and dried over with dirt, and tried to breathe through my mouth.
We dug. The ground was tough and full of roots, and the shovels cut into it with a dull thunk. When the hole was up to my calves, my mother put a hand on my arm. There was dirt on
I picked up Alexander. Her feathers were damp and cold in my hands. For some reason, I closed my eyes until she was in the hole. My mother lowered herself to her knees. We filled the grave back in with handfuls of clay. The shovel would have felt cold and impersonal. My mother patted and smoothed the dirt with her palm, like she was tucking Alexander into bed. By the time we finished, the horizon was a ring of heavy light. I held my palms up against the color of the sky, stained with blood and dirt. Same color.
“Do you want to say something?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
My mother nodded. Her lips were set in a very straight line. She looked down at her hands, wiped them, leaving thick smears of dirt on her pants. My father’s flannel shirt flapped a little in the wind. “Goodbye, Alexander.”
Frankie Bennett and the Skull
Frankie Bennett was renting a human skull to catch a man. Just thinking about it made her want to die of shame. The UNCW Department of Biology said very firmly on the phone that they didn’t give skulls out to just anyone.
“You don’t understand — it’s for Hamlet?” Frankie said. “I’m the props manager? For Wilmington Regional Theatre?” She always spoke in questions on the phone. The cup of tea on her desk gave off slow whorls of steam. At her feet, two boxes of silk flowers waited to be strung on fishing line and hung from Elsinore Castle. The biology department put her on hold.
Hamlet of Denmark, who was wearing board shorts and happened to go by the name of August, had stopped by her office that morning. Was there any chance she could get a real skull for the summer production? It would help him ever so much with his acting.
“Oh—huh?” Blood and bodily fluids always made Frankie want to puke. When the theatre put on Sweeney Todd, she had fainted in the second row. She tried to sit very still in her office chair. “Are you sure?”
“They did it at the Globe last year,” August said, eyes shining.
“Right, yeah. I heard about that,” Frankie’s palms were clammy. She hadn’t.
August shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. The director had forced him to cut his hair, and it was too short on the sides. His ears stuck out a little. It made him look boyish and charming. He was twenty-four; she had looked it up on Facebook. “No big deal, I guess. Just if you get a chance to look into it.”
“I could do that. Sure.” She tried to smile confidently.
She replayed this comment in her head for the rest of the day, and each time it made her feel dizzy and light, like a shaken can of soda.
On the phone, a huffy biology department employee informed her that she would be required to sign some paperwork. “Yes, of course,” Frankie said, her hand over her eyes. “Sure. A fee, too? No, I understand.” She pulled a flower out of the box at her feet and flattened it like a single, crimson star on her palm. The employee told Frankie she could come by tomorrow, skeptically, as though she were pulling off an elaborate prank.
Frankie was in her last summer of a year-long fellowship at the theatre. The job was easy, interesting even, a gap year after her graduation from UNCW the previous May. In the mornings, there was a small checklist of administrative tasks, and in the afternoons, she found props. On good days, she could turn her brain almost completely off until her thoughts flattened into images: hot glue under an emerald gemstone, a firework of spray paint. In these moods, for long stretches at a time, she could exist without language, her mind like a neatly made bed. When they were over she was irritable and wanted only to be alone.
emotion, her life took place in a series of well-ordered tasks, like bubbling in answers on a Scantron. She liked it that way.
Now the year was over, and she was supposed to have some kind of direction, something to move toward, but she didn’t have the vaguest idea what to do. Normal tasks, like making coffee or taking out the trash, had begun to take on a strangled urgency. Sometimes if she thought about everything hard enough, the edges of her vision crept in with a bright blackness.
August had shown up at the theatre in May. He was a student at a conservatory in New York City and had signed a summer equity contract. Frankie met him outside the theatre on the second day of rehearsals for Hamlet. She was struggling to drag fourteen yards of teal chiffon across the parking lot for the backdrop of Claudius’ play. August was fifteen minutes late and already wearing some sort of costume, shirt cuffs ballooning in the thin sunlight.
He jogged toward her and bent to lift the roll of fabric. “Do you need help?” “Oh — yeah, thanks.”
“Are you the director?”
“What?” She tripped over the step leading into the theatre. “No.” “Are you sure? You look directorial.”
She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and laughed, holding open the door with her heel. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah, definitely. All stressed out and carrying more than you can handle.” He half-smiled at her over the pile of fabric in his arms.
“August.” He tried to shift the load to shake her hand and the entire roll fell down the stairs spectacularly, unfurling in an explosion of dust and blue.
“Well,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
Frankie couldn’t explain why she had a crush on August. A year ago, she would have been annoyed by him, exhausted by his habit of singing loudly in the hallways, rolling her eyes as he assigned nicknames to all the other actors. Sometimes she lay in bed and tried to reason herself out of it. He was probably one of those people who mixed up “you’re” and “your” and always overslept and forgot to call his parents when he said he would.
Still, there was a lovable obliviousness to him that made her shoulders relax. One morning, in the parking lot, she caught him slipping a No Fear Shakespeare back into his backpack. He didn’t seem embarrassed, the way she would have been. Instead, he shook her hand like a soldier and said, “This one’s just between us, Frankfurt.” He was missing that need that most actors had for everything to be consumed with drama and meaning. There was an unconcerned, breezy quality to everything he did, as though life were only another elaborate play, firing on all cylinders toward a happy ending.
Renting a human skull turned out to be extremely difficult. Not only was the paperwork mountainous, Frankie had to take a course that certified she knew how to take care of a skull, which was apparently very valuable. After her first session at the laboratory across campus, she’d run into the nearest bathroom and vomited twice. The drama department harassed her about the rental fee; she had to get it cleared with her supervisor, who had to clear it with
someone else. None of these things mattered to Frankie. August had started to stop by her office in the mornings. He often brought her small gifts — a squashed chocolate donut, a flower, a recipe for chicken soup when she had a cold.
One morning, he brought her a small sketch of a skull on a napkin. The eyes were two different sizes, the shadows somehow coming in from both sides.
“What’s this?” she laughed, running the sketch between her fingers. She had painted her nails a jewel-toned green the day before.
“It’s our skull.” He put a hand to his chest, as if he had been wounded. “I’m learning to draw.”
“It’s nice,” she said. “Really.”
“Don’t lie to me, Frankie,” he said, hitting the doorframe on the way out. “It’s pretty bad,” she shouted after him. “I still like it, though.”
When he had gone, Frankie arranged the sketch on her desk in a grid with the other gifts, as though they were props on a miniature prop table. She felt a twist of sadness, as if there was not enough time to hold on to anything good in the world.
She liked to drink her coffee in the turret of the castle, looking out into the darkened theatre. Though the outside of the castle was made of whitewashed foam, the inside was only a wooden platform shaped like a half moon. It was under an air vent and always fantastically cold. When she came down there would be a thin film of sawdust on her hands and jeans.
One morning, while she was tucked away behind the parapets of Elsinore Castle, drinking her coffee and filling out more paperwork for the skull (a tax form this time, how someone had engineered a tax for this sort of thing, she couldn’t imagine), August came in early. She peered over the foam wall. He was muttering to himself, rehearsing his blocking on the darkened stage.
“Hey,” she called down. “I feel like I should let you know I’m here before you do something embarrassing.”
August jumped in surprise, then grinned reflexively. “Like what?” In a minute he had squeezed in beside her onto the crescent platform. “You always beat me here.”
“I’ll never reveal my secrets.” In truth, she’d been up for hours, taking outfits on and off. She’d settled on a pair of black men’s pants that she’d cut off at the ankle, a black tank top, and a black kerchief tied around her hair. Her mother had called that morning, to ask whether Frankie had started looking for a new job. Yes, Frankie said, she had options on the table, open doors. She begged off the call after a few minutes, claiming she had to leave for work.
“Ah,” he grimaced as he swallowed. The coffee was how she always made it, too strong, the nutty smell filling up the space. “It’s dumb.”
She shrugged and took back the mug. “Okay. I could tell you my problems, instead.” He grinned and shut his eyes. “That might be nice, actually.”
“Let’s see… I don’t have a job in two months. Totally unemployed. Oh, my landlord is refusing to give back my security deposit for no good reason. They cancelled the next season of Extreme Baking.”
“You watch Extreme Baking? I love that show.”
“Yeah.” She nudged him with her foot. “Your problems can’t be that bad.” “You’re right. They’re not.” He sighed. “My ex is dating someone.”
“Oh.” She knew what his ex-girlfriend looked like. There was a photo of them on his Instagram, dressed up for Halloween as two pumpkins. Despite the costume, she looked beautiful, her arm slung around August’s waist. “When did you guys break up?”
“Long time ago. It’s silly, too. I broke up with her.”
Frankie held the mug of coffee tightly. “Still. I don’t think that’s silly. That’s sad.” “You know, it did seem sad, earlier. But it’s not so bad up here.”
At home, she scrolled through job listings and sent her resume off without checking it for typos first. She found a theatre in New York City that needed a prop manager and imagined herself walking through Times Square with August. The theatre wanted five years of experience. She sent her resume anyway. She made herself a bowl of popcorn and texted her supervisor to ask if WRT would consider hiring a prop manager full time.
I don’t think so :/ came the reply. Too expensive. w/ the fellowship, no benefits.
I don’t need health insurance, Frankie texted back quickly. Or even days off.
Her supervisor sent back a string of laughing emojis and a mock-up of the poster for Hamlet. August’s face was half in shadow under a huge gothic font. Frankie was surprised he
had managed to look so sad. She traced the letters with a finger.
Looks good, she texted back. Then she turned off her phone. She hadn’t been kidding
about the health insurance.
A week before opening night, Frankie finally got the skull. They handed it to her in a chunky, styrofoam cube. It looked like a cooler at a tailgate.
“Would you like to see it?” the man from the biology department asked. She cracked a smile. “I mean, I believe you. That it’s in there.”
His face didn’t move.
No reaction. “No, I don’t need to see it, thank you.” He walked her out to the car. She strapped it into the passenger seat. On the drive to the theatre, she pretended it was a very small IKEA box. She was going to build the world’s tiniest dresser.
She waited at the door of the theatre for August, who, as always, was the last actor to arrive. He parked haphazardly and jogged toward the theatre door. She held up the cube.
She grinned. “I wanted it to be a surprise.” His jaw dropped. “Frankie! No way.”
“Yeah, c’mon.” He held the door to the theatre open for her, the air conditioning and darkness falling over them in a hush.
“I’m practically dying to see it.” “Ha-ha.”
“Oh you think that’s funny, wait till you hear the other stuff I’ve been working on.” They turned a corner toward the prop table. “I need this skull like I need a hole in the head.”
She laughed, feeling fluttery and vague, like she was moving through a dream. “That one doesn’t even make sense.”
The wings were littered with plastic water bottles, half-drunk teas, even pages of the script, but the prop table was perfect. Each prop sat in its own square, marked off with tape and labeled in Frankie’s cramped, all-caps handwriting. She reached to flick on the small blacklight above the table. “Okay,” she said. “Close your eyes.”
He played along, covering his face with a hand. She quickly opened the top of the styrofoam box, trying not to look at the skull. Carefully, holding the bottom piece of the box so that she didn’t have to touch it, she moved it to the square labeled Act V, Scene I, Yorick. It was very quiet.
“Frankie, I’m dying here.” “Okay, okay. Open your eyes.”
She was suddenly aware of August at her elbow. He smelled like soap and lemon, the kind of clean, damp smell that people have after they’ve showered. “This is just…wild.”
“You have to be really careful with it,” she said. “I mean it.” “Sure,” he said, still looking at the skull.
“And I have to be here,” she said. “They said in the paperwork I have to be here, whenever it’s taken out of the box, because I went to the class and everything. I’m not even really supposed to let you touch it. So if I miss rehearsal—”
“You never miss rehearsal.”
Frankie felt her face flush. “But if I do, you can’t use it that day, and I mean it, okay?” “Yeah.” He put the skull carefully back in the box.
She had thought, on the way over, that she might tell him how she felt about him. But it was too late now. She could not explain how she knew this, but it was true. Getting the skull had made that impossible, as quietly and quickly as turning off a light. The summer was almost over and she was dizzy with the knowledge that if he asked her to, she would do things she hated. Things she wouldn’t even tell him that she hated. There wasn’t enough time to come back from something like that, she could see that now. That was how all tragedies went. The harder you tried, the worse everything got. She had sold herself out. Now everything would go on in the light of that betrayal, whether she wanted it to or not.
“We did it,” she said, and she felt wobbly and a little high.
He put his arm around her shoulder. “Totally, Frankfurt. This is so freakin’ cool. You’re my hero.” The feeling was behind her eyes, it made her want to faint.
morning. But that was to be expected, she told herself, he had been coming for updates about the skull. It wasn’t anything to worry about. And everyone said August was acting better than ever, and wasn’t that her doing? Every night, she closed the lid of the little styrofoam box and took it home with her. She didn’t sleep well with the skull in her apartment and took to walking to the beach in the early morning, where she laid a towel on the sand and slept for an hour or two as the sun came up. She interviewed for a job at a theatre in Oklahoma. They sent her a kind email an hour afterward saying they were going in another direction.
Once, during a rehearsal, she said, “I guess my skull is helping you, huh?”
August was looking over his lines, feet up on the prop table. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I’m a real Hamlet now,” and gave her a grin, but that was all. Then he went back to reading. She straightened a goblet on the table for something to do and went back to her office.
Then, three days before opening night, August asked Frankie to stay and watch him practice his Yorrick monologue. She felt, again, that golden spotlight of possibility, that there was a larger plot at play and something in it was about to go right. Frankie was supposed to have a video interview in half an hour, but she could reschedule. There were only a few days left in the summer. This was her chance. The other actors began to file out of the theatre, patting August on the back. Her heart had begun to beat very fast.
She stood at the back of the theatre, leaning against the wall, to watch him do the monologue. Under the stage lights, the set looked fake and dumpy. The flowers hung limply from the rafters. But somehow, as soon as August took the stage, they transformed, became brighter. She felt the same tenderness toward him that she had, sitting in the castle weeks ago.
He held the skull up against the light. The skull in his hand! She thought she would feel sick, but she felt sort of awed. It looked like it was glowing. She wondered whose it had been, and how long ago they had died. She was overwhelmed by the knowledge that they had been like her, furious and alive.
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” August was pacing the stage, manic and electric. “He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it.” This was a line they had made fun of together, in her office. She wondered if he remembered that. She realized she was holding her breath.
“Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?” The monologue was better with the skull. And hadn’t she done that? Wasn’t it all because of her? She felt a sudden rush of power. “Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
August was finishing the monologue, but Frankie wasn’t listening. She walked in a trance toward the front of the stage, into the orchestra pit and up onto the conductor’s stand, inches from the front of the stage. August, thinking she was reaching for the skull, knelt to hand it to her. She leaned over the music stand, grabbed the front of his shirt, and kissed him.
Without warning, August jerked backward violently, almost falling off the stage, and as he put out a hand to catch himself, in one fluid motion, like the fabric on the day she’d first met him, the skull tipped out of his hands.
and over, and then — she felt it reverberate through the room — it hit the floor of the pit with a heavy crack.
August jumped off the stage to kneel beside her in the orchestra pit. “Oh no, oh, Frankie, I’m sorry.”
She pushed him aside to examine the skull. An almost imperceptible crack ran down the side. There was a single tooth, an incisor, lying small and grey on the floor, adding another hole to the grin. “Oh — No,” she wailed. “No, no, no.”
“I didn’t mean to, Frankie. I’m so sorry. I just – um — I guess I was surprised? I don’t — I just think of you as a… friend.”
There was a terrible silence. “You—” she said, and stupidly she felt her eyes well with tears. “I told you that you had to be careful with it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, quietly. She knew it was her fault, and that made it worse.
“Don’t apologize to me,” Her voice echoed back through the theatre. She felt a familiar fury rising from her toes into her whole body. She shook the skull at him. “Apologize to her! This was a person. People deserve — I don’t know, they deserve, like, dignity, and, and, a little respect, and —
He was looking at her like she was crazy. “Frankie —”
“You don’t — you’re so — ugh!” She sank to her knees, holding the skull in her lap. “She was my whole summer.”
“Are you okay?” It was such a stupid thing for him to say that for a moment they just stared at one another.
The Laundromat in Apartment 8B
When the crisis hit, they closed every laundromat in Manhattan, including the one we went to every Thursday night, three blocks down on the left. The owners taped a sign to the door, ripped out from a spiral bound notebook. Stay healthy. Stay home!
“Where will we wash our clothes?” I asked. I was seven and still thought every question had an answer. My mother shifted the bag of clothes on her hip and didn’t answer, red bandana tied around her mouth and chin. To keep me quiet, my father gave me two quarters. I dropped the shinier one down a gutter on the walk home, the city so quiet you could hear the plunk when it landed.
We were lucky to have a bathtub in our apartment. My mother was in charge of washing the bedsheets, and she dunked them underwater one by one, pulling them out like the huge, sopping wings of a bird. After she had finished, she sat my twin baby brothers in the tub, where they made bubble beards and smacked the water in great gusts over the porcelain side. My father washed the smaller things in the bathroom sink — my brothers’ matching shirts and pajama bottoms, his own elastic boxers and the masks Mama wore when she went shopping for groceries. When he was done, his hands smelled like flowers.
their words muffled through masks. After they left, we’d spray the bathroom down with bleach and wash the welcome mat, just to be safe.
By the time Ella Henderson snuck into her two hundred and fifty seventh free movie at the Greensboro AMC, she was almost hoping to get caught. The sneaking wasn’t done out of financial necessity — her paralegal salary was comfortable enough. It was a hobby, the way some people liked to knit, or play racquetball. She had hopes of one day becoming a serious movie critic. The sneaking in would be the perfect story to tell on red carpets, a reminder of rougher, sadder times that she would look back on from her diamond-studded life and laugh. “If only I had known where I’d end up,” she’d say, touching the arm of a handsome young star, “Back when I was your age.” She was thirty-nine.
She had picked up the hobby two years ago, after a telephone conversation with her parents, who were both sixty-eight and somehow much busier than her. The conversation began with Ella telling them about a recurring nightmare she had been having every night for two weeks. In the nightmare, she was lying in a grave while it filled with dirt around her. Her parents, who were retired and spent most of their time in an RV on elaborate road trips, had been entirely unsympathetic.
“It’s not right for a woman to be without a hobby. Especially a childless woman. I’ve always thought so,” her mother said. Her father, who was fixing something on the RV in the background, was not really listening.
Ella sighed in the Walmart aisle. She adjusted her cell phone to put a single apple and a half-pound of chicken in the grocery cart.
“Did you try that recipe I sent you? The lasagna?” Her father half-shouted. He always talked too loudly on the phone.
“Not yet, Dad.”
“What about racquetball?” Her mother’s voice faded, which meant that Ella had been put on speakerphone.
“Racquetball is for spinsters.”
“Well.” There was an awkward pause. Her mother did not say anything, which was somehow much worse.
“So what else going on in your life?” her father asked. There was a loud crashing sound, presumably from the camper. “Hold that thought, hon. We’ll have to call you back.”
The line went dead in the frozen vegetables aisle. Ella stared at her grocery cart, full of the same items she had bought last week and the week before. It struck her that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had something interesting or important to say. As a child she had been painfully shy, but she had never seen this separation from other people as a point of
concern. After all, she had always had her parents, who loved her, and chalked her oddities up to being ‘an old soul.’ But lately, when they talked on the phone, it seemed like her parents didn’t have much time for her. She heard an edge in their voices that hadn’t been there before, and it had begun to occur to her that she was someone to worry about, that there was a faulty part somewhere inside her that she had not known was malfunctioning and didn’t know how to fix.
the grocery store, and she always flipped to his review first. That week, he had written a column about movie criticism. An illustrious profession, he had written. Full of of truly wonderful stories. She remembered again the recurring nightmare, how unprotesting she had been as dirt
filled her lungs. Then she had snapped the newspaper shut, stuffed her groceries in the trunk, and driven straight to the movies, where she jumped the velvet rope and watched a children’s movie about animated bunnies.
By the time Ella made it home, the milk had gone bad and she had missed her parents’ second phone call, which made her feel better. She was too wired to sleep. It felt like there was an electric coil nestled in her stomach, snapping with diamond sparks of light. She couldn’t explain why she had snuck in, except that she knew she wouldn’t tell her parents about it, and it made her feel independent and interesting. After that, sneaking into movies became something of a habit. She kept a red, spiral-bound notebook numbering each movie and her opinion on it, and spent hours in her kitchenette, writing out reviews in a steady hand. Maybe sneaking in was a little gimmicky, she thought, but everyone had a gimmick. It would be her way of standing out in
The bubblegum girl, Taylor, spent almost all of her time behind the plexiglass checking her texts and staring mournfully out the tinted windows. Ella had chosen the AMC for all her cons because it was staffed by high schoolers, and high schoolers would rather drop dead than notice anyone else. She created disguises anyway — changed her hairstyle, wore sunglasses now and then — but it never mattered. She seemed to have an eerie and borderline unnatural gift for going unnoticed. Once, on the opening night of a new fantasy movie, she had worn an enormous mustard-yellow ball gown from the Goodwill. Half of the sequins were missing, and she almost got caught, but it was worth it. You couldn’t play racquetball in a ball gown.
Ella pretended to read the movie times, even though she had already decided on a sentimental movie about a dog. She was wearing an enormous pair of sunglasses shaped like hearts and a denim dress that almost brushed the floor. She didn’t have to sneak past Taylor, because plenty of people bought tickets in advance online. She always lingered in the front lobby, just in case Taylor looked up from her phone and decided to talk to her. She hadn’t yet, but that was okay. When Ella was a real critic, she’d come in, and Taylor would recognize her and wave her through. “She’s a critic,” Taylor would say to the other people in the lobby, “Got her start right here,” and when the movie was done, Ella would come out and they’d laugh about the old days of disguises and spiral-bound notebooks. Still, she was hoping Taylor might
compliment the glasses.
A sucking noise behind her signalled the front door opening.
“I’m telling you, Space Raiders is terrible. Let’s see the dog movie.”
Miller Harrison had just walked into the Greensboro AMC. He looked much older than his picture in the paper. Ella felt slightly faint. Miller reviewed movies at the (much fancier) Cinebarre on the other side of Greensboro. Ella had tried to sneak in there, once, and had narrowly avoided getting caught. She leaned casually against the wall of the lobby and used her sunglasses to look at him without looking like she was looking at him.
Miller Harrison was on a date. He was wearing a sport coat. The woman, who was carrying a plain purse, reminded Ella of a kindly elementary school teacher. She felt very warm towards Miller for having age-appropriate taste in women, especially when he could have had anyone in Greensboro.
The truth was that Ella often daydreamed of going to the News & Record after her three-hundredth movie, just to show off what she knew. Everyone would be impressed — she would be hired as a critic on the spot. Miller Harrison would ask her out before the ink was dry on the contract. On their first date, when he asked how she’d seen so many movies, Ella imagined herself confessing it all. He would find her life of petty crime charming and entirely
unforgettable. They would fall in love. Her first column would be about sneaking into movies, when she was just starting out and working hard to make it as a critic. When it came out, she’d announce she was donating her first month’s salary to the AMC. She would tell her parents over the phone, when they were deep in some forest in their rinky-dink RV camper, and their life would look small and uninteresting in comparison to hers.
noticed the presence of greatness, the glowing star in their midst. Taylor was on her phone. Ella checked her watch. She wanted to stick around to hear what movie they decided on, but the dog movie began in five minutes, so with a sigh, Ella headed into the rear lobby.
The rear lobby was where the movie theatre really began, with a concession stand against the back wall and a humidity concentration of processed butter in the air. The actual theaters extended down two dark tunnels. In between the tunnels stood the ticket stubber, like an
impervious medieval guard. The ticket stubber was sixteen, and the most crucial employee to get past. His name was Brian.
Ella rifled through her purse as though searching for her ticket, using the movement to check her watch. No one could get past Brian without a strategy. Ella’s strategies varied. It helped that the movie theatre was usually busy, and that Brian was deeply apathetic towards his job. She often ‘forgot’ things in the movie theatre, or passed as a member of a large family. Once, she had said she was the movie critic for the News & Record — just to see how the daydream would sound out loud. That was one of her favorite sneak-ins.
Ella’s most consistent strategy was a child named Maribelle. Maribelle was ten years old. She ran the concession stand. Her father, who owned the movie theatre, didn’t pay her, but she was allowed to eat as much popcorn as she wanted. She was both unhealthy and reasonably unequipped to handle a concession stand, which meant that she could usually be counted on to create distraction. Something went wrong with Maribelle about every two minutes, which gave Ella a minute and thirty seconds to kill. Thankfully, she had a very large purse.
“Brian, help!” she wailed. There came the unpleasant sound of popcorn being squished. “Help, or I’ll tell my dad.”
So Brian had to rush behind the counter, which gave Ella just enough time to squeeze in between the rope and a cardboard cutout of Robert De Niro. She walked through the lobby and into the dark cavern of theaters. Nothing to it, nothing at all. She almost wished it had been more difficult. The whole thing had taken six minutes.
As she waited, comfortably squashed into a pleather seat, Ella saw Miller Harrison and the brunette take the seats just in front of her. She leaned forward to listen to their conversation, pretending to tie one of her velcroed shoes.
“Miller, I’m telling you, I’ll cry,” said the woman.
“You would have cried from boredom at Space Raiders,” said Miller Harrison. “Did I tell you I interviewed the actor in this movie?”
“Of course, that was years ago. He was hilarious. I can’t remember — some joke he told. So funny.” He laughed to himself.
“Hmm.” The brunette shifted in her seat.
An hour into the movie, the dog was getting sick, and Ella had not paid attention to a single scene. When the brunette, who had been crying steadily for seventeen minutes, got up to go to the bathroom, Ella slipped out of her seat and followed her.
In the bathroom, the brunette made a beeline for her own reflection in the mirror. “Oh, honestly,” she said.
Ella locked herself in a stall and listened curiously. There was a lot of sniffling, and the heavy thumping of a paper towel dispenser. After exactly a minute and thirty seconds, Ella unlocked the stall and dared a peek at the brunette. She was trying to repair her makeup while still crying heavily. The counter around her was littered with paper towels.
Ella kept her head down as she washed her hands. She wished that she had the red sunglasses now, so she could stare at the woman in privacy. The woman didn’t notice her.
“Are you okay?” said Ella.
The woman started, as if she hadn’t known anyone was there. Her eyeliner pencil drew a jagged line across her cheek. “I’m sorry.” She motioned to her face and laughed a little. “I’m seeing that movie about the dog. I don’t know why it made me such a mess.”
Ella nodded as though this was new information. “Me too,” she offered, after a minute. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had bothered to make small talk with her. She hoped she wasn’t messing anything up.
“I like your dress,” the woman said without really looking at Ella’s dress. She wet a paper towel and scrubbed it against her cheek. The eyeliner became a large grey circle.
Marianne scrubbed again at her face. “Come off, come off, come off.” She threw the paper towel onto the sink in a fit of frustration. “I can’t go back in like this. I’m on a date.”
Ella shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She didn’t wear makeup and felt a slight sense of superiority. “You’re on a date? Do you like him?” The question sounded awkward, like the words were too big for her mouth.
Marianne sighed and leaned forward into the mirror, until her nose was almost touching her reflection. “Not really, but hey — not like I have a lot of options.”
Ella didn’t want the date to be going well, but she was still annoyed. “Why don’t you like him?”
Marianne shrugged. “He’s just — not very interesting.”
Ella was beginning to feel very hot. This woman could cry her eyes out over two actors on a screen, and she thought Miller was boring? “You’re on a date with Miller Harrison. The movie critic. He’s very interesting.”
“Only in Greensboro could being a movie critic make you interesting,” said Marianne. “Don’t you think you’re being a little judgmental?” said Ella, too loudly.
Marianne looked at her reflection in the mirror, incredulous, as though it was a person she could speak to, a person to whom she could say Are you hearing this? Ella uncrossed her arms uncomfortably. She had not meant to speak so loudly. She was beginning to get a familiar feeling, the feeling that a conversation had gotten away from her. Her chest twinged. There was a code that told you what was alright to say, some unspoken thing Marianne understood and she didn’t.
Marianne fastened the clasp of her purse calmly. She still had a large, grey spot on her cheek, spreading like a bruise. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what your problem is, but I’m having a very bad day, and I want to go back to my seat now, so would you move?” She didn’t look so much like an elementary school teacher anymore. Ella stepped aside, and the woman banged through the doorway.
Ella could see her own reflection, standing in the corner, her face flushed, and she felt the electric coil in her stomach grow hot. It all felt so unfair — that you could be an interesting critic for an interesting paper and some woman with a cheap purse and bad taste in movies could just decide that she didn’t like you? That she could decide your small talk was rude, or forward, for
no reason at all except that she probably played racquetball, and had friends, and had somehow figured out the system of the world that seemed to slip from Ella’s fingers at every turn. Ella wheeled around and back towards the theatre.
In the movie, the dog was only getting sicker, and the theatre seemed to be filled with sniffles. Ella marched up the aisles, the tiny lights making her a way, straight down the row where Miller Harrison and the brunette were sitting stiffly beside each other.
“She thinks you’re boring, you know,” said Ella.
The woman’s mouth dropped open. Miller Harrison, who had by now taken off his sport coat, looked at her as though she was a mildly interesting scene in the movie.
“Uh — what?” He said.
“This is ridiculous,” said Marianne. In the shadowed theatre, one could just barely make out the smudge of eyeliner on her cheek. “I don’t — you know what? We’re leaving.” And without another word, she grabbed Miller’s sport coat and barreled down the steps.
Miller, who was still sitting in his seat, looked, surprised, at Ella, who looked back. Someone shushed in the back of the theatre. He stood up, looking slightly lost. Ella moved into the aisle. Miller looked forlornly at the movie screen, where the dog was taking its last breath. They walked awkwardly down the steps, trying not to walk with one another.
Outside the theatre, Marianne was tapping her foot in a huff. It was obvious that she had been driven there, and wanted very much to leave. When she saw Ella, her eyes bulged.
“What is wrong with you? Would you just leave me alone?”
Ella was suddenly very tired. She would have to count this as only half of a movie, which seemed like a waste. Miller Harrison emerged from the theatre, blinking. Without his sport coat, he looked extremely short, but the light seemed to shake him out of his stupor.
“Do you really think I’m boring?” he asked her.
Marianne looked slightly embarrassed, as if she had been caught. “I just — I don’t think it’s working out —” She mumbled something about different interests.
Miller glanced back at the movie theatre, as though he would have liked very much to go back inside. Ella would have liked to go back inside, too. She could be cocooned in the darkness, watching inane people on a screen, and she would be forty-three movies from somewhere, but not there yet. She could insulate herself with other people’s lives, and everything would be interesting and make believe. She hugged her red notebook to her chest.
The woman scowled. “Just forget it. I’m calling an Uber. You —” she looked at Ella. “You—” and as if she couldn’t think of anything terrible enough to say, she shook her head, turned on her heel, and left.
Miller Harrison looked very tired. Now that they were alone, Ella felt nervous and unprepared. The electric coil in her stomach gave a small fizz. She clutched her notebook more tightly. “Y-You look a lot older than your picture in the paper,” she said.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Miller said. “Oh — no.”
He watched the woman’s back. “What happened?”
Ella shifted back and forth. “She — she said you were boring. I don’t think you’re boring. I read all your reviews.”
Miller Harrison wasn’t really listening to her. He was watching Maribelle and Brian, who were far away and seemed to be fighting about the popcorn machine.
Ella kept pushing. “I’d like to work for the News & Record one day, you know.”
Miller snorted. “You shouldn’t. It’s terrible. They’re cutting our health insurance in half.” “You must like something about it.”
She should have stopped then, sensed the conversation tilting towards disaster. But she felt reckless, and brave. She had a good story to tell, and she had driven Marianne off, and she could see the faintest possibility of her interesting life just beyond her, like light shining around a corner. “You know, I’ve seen two hundred and fifty-six movies here. Well, two hundred fifty-six and a half.”
“I’m going to be a critic. One day.” She felt like a baby bird stepping towards the edge of its nest. All she had to do was close the deal. She put a hand on his arm and tried her best to bat her eyelashes. “I’ve never even paid for a ticket. I sneak in. Isn’t that terrible?”
Miller Harrison looked at her as though she were a kernel of popcorn on the sticky theatre floor. “Huh?”
Her smile faded a bit. “It’s funny. My shtick. You know? Like, when I was starting out, I snuck into movies?”
He backed away. “I’m sorry, are you homeless or something?” “What? No, I —”
“You want money?” “No —”
“Look,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re a fan —”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Ella felt very out of breath. “It’s —” “No cash,” Miller said, holding up his wallet. “Sorry.”
Ella stopped batting her eyelashes. She felt the electric coil in her stomach growing big and then exploding until stars popped behind her eyes. He was backing away from her now, his shoulders slumped, his suit coat swung limply over his shoulder.
She didn’t have the words to make him understand that everything had gone wrong, all of it, right from the start, since the day she began having her nightmare, since the conversation with her parents, since the frozen vegetable aisle. She felt as though she was falling down a long tunnel, like she had jumped for the sky and ended up underground.
the way to Taylor, sitting like a trophy in her glass booth, set apart from the world. Taylor, who had never talked to her, and had probably never even thought about. All at once, Ella was ripping pages out of her notebook in sections of two, then five, ten. Taylor stared at her with an open mouth, her gum a pink and squishy lump on her tongue.
On her twenty-fourth birthday, in a tiny loft on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rebekah Bedfield stole a hat. She wasn’t the kind of person who stole things, and because of this, for years afterward, she told the story all the time. She told it for laughs at parties. She told it to her children when they couldn’t sleep. She told it to her husband on their fourth date, and even at that early point in their relationship, he accused her of making it up. This pleased her. She believed that the only stories worth telling were stories no one would expect of you.
In most aspects of her life, Rebekah was relatively unextraordinary, but she was a good storyteller. Oftentimes, after she told the story of the hat, the listener would remember her as a strikingly beautiful person. Once, a woman she had met at the library would describe Rebekah as wearing an emerald fur coat and gold, hexagonal earrings. This could not possibly have been true. Rebekah is the kind of woman who remembers to send birthday cards and buys food without preservatives. She wears her hair braided in dark, parallel lines down her back.
She always began here: It was raining. It was the rainiest October Manhattan had seen in years. Once, when she was telling the story at a New Year’s Eve party, her best friend
“I remember your twenty-fourth birthday,” she said. “It wasn’t raining.” Her hand clawed around a champagne flute. The bubbles rose thinly to the surface.
“Yes it was,” Rebekah said. The rain wasn’t even important to the story. But it was how she told it.
“No,” the friend said, shaking her head vigorously. “I remember. I wore my suede boots, and I wouldn’t have if it was raining.”
“Would you just let me tell the freaking story?” This was the closest Rebekah ever got to cursing. She kept a tight smile on her face. Across the room, her two-year old looked up warily, hand paused above a wooden block.
So begin here: It was raining. It was the rainiest October Manhattan had seen in years. When she walked down the street, the skyscrapers groaned and settled in the wind, as though the whole city was breathing. It was her twenty-fourth birthday, and Rebekah Bedfield (then
Sanders) was being dumped. She always glossed over this fact, made it into a joke (especially when her husband was around). She’d say, “Don’t breakups always feel so juvenile? They never change.” Tossed her hair behind her shoulder. Made her wedding ring catch the light. The breakup was not the point of the story.
“How was work?” her ex-boyfriend-but-not-yet said. She’d make a joke here — these were the kinds of things they said to each other. Mundane things. Then she’d look lovingly at her husband. This was meant to indicate to her audience that she and her husband asked each other very different questions than “How was work?” In fact, she and her husband dissected
everything together. It was almost exhausting, the amount of conversations they had, the stones they turned up in one another’s lives. Rebekah met her husband four years after the stolen hat. He was an investigative journalist for a major newspaper, and because of this, people were always telling him secrets. He is tall and brooding, with a habit of keeping eye contact for too long. The husbands of her friends tend to dislike him.
Usually at this point in the story, someone (unprompted) would ask Rebekah a question about her ex-boyfriend, Isaac. Though Rebekah would not admit it, her hat-stealing was not the reason people liked the story. The story was interesting because Isaac was very, very famous. The year after they’d broken up, he started an app that helped people track what they ate by taking a picture of their food instead of manually logging it. The app sold for an obscene amount of money to a tightly-spandexed (and suspiciously cult-y) group of exercise gurus, and made him a celebrity. By the time she was forty, he hosted a wildly popular morning talk show about health and wellness. Rebekah does not watch the show. She thinks health and wellness is a scam for people who are afraid of getting old. She walks around the block twice a day and uses generic face wash and that is enough for her.
Rebekah and Isaac dated for eleven months. The relationship was not serious or casual, neither long nor short. They had separate groups of friends, but met through a friend of the other’s friend at a poetry reading for a stranger who later (she’d name drop the poet here) also became very famous. The reading had been in the poet’s own loft in Greenwich Village. There were white sheets hung from the ceiling to create a makeshift stage, and multicolored Christmas lights. Rebekah found it all kind of depressing.
“I mean, you could see the woman’s shampoo bottles in the shower from the audience,” she’d say. “Very low budget.”
But Isaac had taken the whole thing very seriously, and had dressed too nicely for the occasion, which she found kind of charming. He’d asked if she wanted to share a cab back to Queens, even though she found out later that he actually lived in Brooklyn, and only took the subway. He just wanted to keep talking to her. They met each other’s parents exactly once, at the same brunch place. They hated the same kind of books.
The backstory of the hat, she couldn’t give. It wasn’t the kind of thing Isaac would normally own. He’d certainly never worn it. The most adventurous shirt in his closet was blue with thin green stripes. Even then, she’d once seen him pull a coat over it in church (in August) because he thought it was too casual.
If her audience was really desperate for gossip, she would add in a second, quick anecdote. For Christmas, Isaac had misheard a request for candelabras and gotten her a pair of stuffed llamas instead, wrapped in crimson paper. This always elicited a good laugh.
No matter how many times she told the story, there were some details she kept to herself. The details: She was freshly graduated from Duke and quietly quitting a short phase of
environmentalism. Her junior year, she’d published an op-ed in the student newspaper that started a composting program in the dining hall. She’d once chained herself to a tree to stop it from getting cut down (she could never remember why the tree had been more important than other trees). Manhattan overwhelmed and upset her. She began to jump at small noises. It was easy, quitting environmentalism. She littered casually and bought thick, shapeless pants made of polyester. She worked for a retail chain in a cement skyscraper fielding customer service calls. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel guilty about it. She was tired. She didn’t have a lot of money. One day, she woke up and thought practicality was the highest kind of virtue.
At the time, Isaac worked in an office in the West Village buying advertisements for television networks. From this, he’d picked up the unfortunate mental habit of dividing his time perfectly into thirty-second increments. Packing his lunch took him eight increments, he’d told her. Making coffee took three. He wrote Rebekah a list of thirty things that he loved about her. At the time, her apartment in Queens was so small that she had taped it up in the kitchen, to the inside of a cabinet door. When she reached for the smooth rim of a glass, she sometimes caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of her eye.
17. Your fascination with NYC pigeons
28. The way your nose gets super pink in the cold
Isaac was the only person she’d ever dated who did not like her as much as she liked him. These details made her feel cowardly. A good storyteller was not a coward.
She had to fit in a lot of exposition before the actual breaking up, because the story snowballed too quickly afterward, and anyway, her listeners lost interest fast once the story was about her, and not Isaac.
The break up: Before Isaac broke the news, they made small talk for four thirty-second increments (she timed this on the clock above his head). He offered her a cup of strong coffee. “And all the while,” she always said, “The hat sat there, in the corner.” The story didn’t work if she didn’t draw attention to the hat throughout. It was a delicate business, telling a story.
Speed the story up. Isaac said, “Listen,” and then he said a lot of other things. All these other things meant: I don’t like you as much as you like me. She tried to generalize these parts of the story, to make them sound like every other breakup, and if she did it well enough, someone in the group would interject a story about his/her own breakup that went just like that.
This interjection gave Rebekah time to shut herself inside the story, as though she were sliding the chain across a very tiny door. She never gave specifics. This was how she turned heartbreak into a party anecdote, like an origami bird.
At some point, when the conversation seemed to have gone on entirely too long, her husband would interject and say, “But Beck, you haven’t told them about the hat yet!”
“Oh yes,” she’d say, like she’d forgotten. “The hat. Right. So—”
The aftermath: When he was finished with the speech, there’d been a long silence. She got up and walked around the living room. Bare floors and a movie poster (unframed),
a couch and the leather was cracking. He had one plant that she had to text him to remember to water. She touched one of its leaves. It would die without her.
She built the tension. By this point, if she had told the story well enough, she would be entirely separate from it.
“I’m really, really sorry,” Isaac said, shifting uncomfortably on the couch. She knew he had never broken up with anyone before. He had never even really dated anyone before, except one girl in college, Samantha, who had taped a letter to his dorm room door that they were done. Her head was full of this kind of information, things that didn’t matter now. The apology made everything worse.
At the ending, she drew herself up. It was the ending that took energy.
When she told the story to men, she made a rapid right at Isaac’s apology. She pushed her hair behind her ears (it made her look younger). She reminded them that she had grown up in a small town in North Carolina with unlocked doors and nuclear families down the block like rows of corn. She blinked her eyes. She became the most unobtrusive version of herself.
“I was twenty-four,” she laughed. “So young. What could I think to do?”
She clenched her fists and mimicked an angry face. (She always scrunched up her nose. When she was actually angry, her face became a stone, and she got very pale).
“I just couldn’t walk out of there,” she’d say. “I just couldn’t.”
Men always leaned in, elbows on the table, heads bent together. Her friends’ husbands were men who understood the risk of backing down. It struck something for them, in their fraternities and boardrooms, something that she couldn’t always put a finger on, some