So, here's another short story. This one’s from 2009.
I was in a bad place and it shows. This one’s really not for everyone, and like a lot of my stuff, it’s NSFW. Getting whacked with the growing-up stick really sucks, that’s for sure.
Journal excerpt about it down below.
by Pauline West
Johnny was shirtless and white as stone.
“Do you always get dressed just to have a cigarette?” I said, rolling over. Watching him.
He was beautiful, standing there looking around his room for one of his black hoodies. Scraping back his long hair, cough drops falling out of his pants pockets.
I hadn’t had a cough drop in years. They were the cherry kind, so I unwrapped one and ate it. The taste was what it had always been. It was sweet, almost sharp: the taste of skipping school, of watching cartoons on the living room carpet with your friends instead. The red candy you only got when the school nurse thought you were sick. The taste that maybe you could get away with something after all.
“I guess it’s a habit,” Johnny said.
“I wish I had habits,” I said, stupidly.
I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want to be alone in his room, alone with his smell everywhere all around me. Because it hadn’t been long since you left me. Some mornings I woke up still thinking it was you beside me. But your hair was lighter than his.
That line you used to feed me about not knowing where you ended and I began. When all the time you must have known we were never going to end up together. You knew, and I didn’t. There’s a thing I was the last to figure out, me who was always so proud of being smart.
Suppose when the guy hands the girl back her heart—suppose she doesn’t want it back, what then?
You gave me back my heart and I had nowhere to put it. And then you got up and left, because they said I am not the kind of girl you take to Hollywood.
Johnny was dressed, standing there watching me.
“You don’t have habits?” he said, finally.
He couldn’t figure out if it was okay for him to leave. He just wanted to go outside and smoke his cigarette. He liked sweet things. He liked his coffee milky-sweet and his women milky-soft. Red candy cough drops, black clove cigarettes.
“What are you thinking?” he said.
“That I love the sound of my fucking voice in my head.”
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
His teeth were sharp and yellowed. Sexy in his demi-rock star sort of way, and I loved the way he used to bite me, fuck me so hard that I went out of my head. He knelt back on the mattress and had my breasts in his hands. Knocked bottles onto the floor, and it all started over again. “Obsessed with you,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know if I love you, or if I just want to, so much.”
“But how do we know?”
“Love isn’t—the more you try to touch it the less real it will be.”
“I do love you. Because I’m afraid of when you leave.” Between my thighs he made a fist. He turned it against me. “I need you so much.”
“I’m tired,” I said, and he went outside, away somewhere, to smoke his cigarette and probably wonder why on earth he’d thrown over a perfectly good girl to take up with me.
There were always wasps in his house. You had to watch not to step on them when you went to the kitchen for water. Wasps crawling all over the floor. Their waists so fragile how could you know how long their daggers.
Now it was late. The sky was wet, people were throwing beer over the apartment ledge and someone was crying in the bushes; end of a night. He’d driven me home.
I was high, babbling. “You know, people looking at me—at any woman—they’re looking at more than just sex. They’re looking at the shape, the idea. And maybe that’s what seduction is. The suggestion of something…a symbol, an ideal…”
“No, men want to fuck women. They want to come all over your face and your tits. Release. That’s it. Throw away. That’s it. Like a fucking rag. Strangers looking at girls—you want it to be this beautiful thing, but you’re just stoned, baby.”
“You know what? I don’t care. I just wanted to make you feel better about it. This dumb goddamn insecurity you have, which doesn’t matter anyway. Because I don’t give a fuck how you feel.”
A cop pulled into the parking lot. Then people were yelling and slamming doors.
“I have to go,” I said.
Johnny grabbed my hand. And I didn’t care. It had become an unclean habit, my not wanting to be alone.
“I mean, the difference is, I love you,” Johnny said. I slipped free.
“Wait,” he said. “I want to say—its not the kind of jealousy you think it is. If I was a woman, I would want to be you. That’s all.”
I paced in my room looking out my window. Was this how it would be now? The part of me that had flown away, would it ever come back? I tried to think about years from now. If I stayed with him. We’d take long walks in the country. In his country of love and cigarettes, chickens, dogs, wildflowers. It could be like that.
Maybe there was something wrong with me, wrong with the way that I loved.
Oh, my love. Why couldn’t you figure out who you were without needing to hear strangers say it? While you went sneaking around, feeding me lies. But I ate them. I loved your lies, I made them my body. So maybe I was the monster.
Monsters love their labyrinths. And yes, I stayed and stayed.
I stood there with my window, aching for Johnny. I loved the way he fucked. I thought he probably told lots of girls that if he were a woman he would want to be them. It was a good line. Who wouldn’t say it again? I would say it again.
Suddenly there was his voice on the phone. I couldn’t remember it ringing. Everything that year was one unending string of sex and candy and talking, crying drunk kissing the clove sweetness of his lips and neck-
“Were you sleeping?” he said. From the way his voice sounded I could tell how close he held the phone to his ear.
“Can I come over? Just to lie next to you. I can’t sleep.”
“Aren’t you back out in the country?”
“I’m not going to do anything. I’ll just lie next to you. I’ll be quiet and you sleep.”
So he drove back, he came into my room and lay beside me, but there wasn’t enough blanket.
“It’s okay,” he said. Pushing his face into my breast, arms around me, he lay there whispering until he fell asleep. He smelled like Christmas and I slept with his beautiful long hair in my fingers. We fitted together. He thought it was all going to mean something.
Later that summer we were fighting. He knew I didn’t love him, that I couldn’t and that he couldn’t make me, but he loved me so much anyway it was eating his heart alive. Couldn’t I listen? Couldn’t I just listen for one second?
I stepped on one of the wasps. It stung me, but didn’t hurt me. I stood there, in the center of all Johnny’s throwing and screaming, staring at the bubbling red mark on my skin.
“It doesn’t hurt!” I said. “I can’t feel a fucking thing.”
The wasp was still alive, too, but Johnny stomped over and killed it. He said so many things to me but I couldn’t listen. I watched the dead wasp lay there untwisting on the rug.
Then I left, and I never came back. It was useless hanging around town trying to understand. You were never coming back and I would never understand. You were my place on earth. You were my everything. But now there is nothing to belong to. All there was to do is move, wash away. I let go. I went out with the tide.
N--, you are free. Your mind will never speak to me again.
Say it again, like someone in a bad movie. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. Fine: a big house and a reality show and everybody watching. That will make it better. You believe that.
I have my labyrinth.
Excerpt from my journal, written after I pulled up 'Monster' and read it for the first time since-
man, maybe since I wrote the thing-
January 30th, 2015.
I do feel different about what happened then. I feel different about it now. I tell myself that it was my fault, and sometimes I believe this.
It was my first time for everything. I did not know how to be in a relationship, how to compromise. I often had crippling anxiety.
Today, I don't think anyone would describe me as shy. Although at parties I still prefer the intense one-on-ones in the corner.
Anyway. N was the kind of person who, when he told me there was another, took pictures of my reaction.
It was early in the morning. Winter morning? I was making us breakfast. He told me, and my first impulse was to leave our apartment, immediately, still naked and barefoot under my pale, fluffy blue bathrobe. (Where did it go, that robe? I must have thrown it away. The blood of my soul on it.)
But he insisted that I stay, “No, no, I’m telling you because I want to work it out-”
and inside I began to slide end over end as his explanations sank through me- the cliches- and I wanted to die, and I wept, and he pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of me crying. (An artist, after all, and we are cold-blooded things, sometimes.) He sang Under My Thumb.
But he was also the kind of person who, after we’d fight, he'd come over to my parents where I’d holed up, and he’d read to me, or he’d clean out my bathtub- giving himself a barcode- shaped scar on his back-
(and incidentally Andrew has the same-shaped scar, made in the exact same place; this is a story I’ve never mentioned to him)-
N scrubbed it out and climbed into bed and then it was the two of us again, against everything, like always. He was the kind of person who delighted in the smell of cut limes, in afternoons side by side in the bookstore, holding hands. I mean, we were kids.
Young artists, equally abusive to one another.
(Me: controlling, tyrannically shy. And him- well. Well. We all make mistakes.)
“An artist should never date another artist,” I said, afterwards, stricken, to another friend.
And my friend- an artist himself- looked at me as if I’d slapped him. "oh-"
Ahh- who was that girl who used to do things like that? Flirt outrageously with a friend and then grin and say, “Ah, but I’d never date you?” Haha, what a crazy bitch.
And yet, don't we all love those stories?
I think of O: how she waited to dump this one dude until he’d dropped her off at the airport, because she'd needed a ride there; how she dropped another right after he’d flown cross country to see her- she’d met someone else, more interesting, the day before-
’nah man, shoo-shoo, just go on back to where you came from’, I love those stories, honestly I do.
There’s something inside me thats a bit Miss Havisham. (Oh Dickens, how did you know?)
Anyway. N. This is not to say that I forgive you- but I do- I still talk to you in my head almost every day-
And when my brother died, you were the one I almost wrote to, except-
the words, the words, I just couldn't write the words. I wrote to G instead.
But it did seem to me that you should know. You always loved James. Remember? Remember how you always used to ruff his hair. Remember that time you were so angry at him for throwing rocks at cars? Ah, because we all grew up together- seven years-you were a part of my family.
And you'd wanted to cast him in Pyramid. Everything would have been so different. Our world would have been different. Or maybe not.
Maybe, in another world, we did cast him, and we made him feel special, and there, he is still alive. Oh, I don't know.
In this world, you and my dead brother are the two people I screwed up with the most, in uncountable and irredeemable ways.
Life is all too brief, and when it slips from your grasp, you want to know you always did the best you could.
Not that it matters. I’m kidding myself to think any of this matters. In that last moment, when our minds snap closed and fade to black: at the death of this dream we’re having, of each having been a person-
Ah... and then again, who are you now, anyway?
Maybe you've grown up to become something flat and fake and LA and vicious, a living joke from a Brett Easton Ellis novel, and not the boy I remember at all.
Its funny what in us ultimately devours the child we once were.
I was a wild, willful, angry young thing: now I'm a willful scribbly old thing.
A while back, reading the journals of Anais Nin, I noted how she was piqued when Henry Miller calmed down and began to focus so much, rather than living, as she put it.
But in the end, as an artist, you do the work.
Heh, and I have a full time job besides- without discipline I would be too tired to write at all. More often than not, I work late into night to get it all done. The gigs that pay, and the ones that don’t- but I've been bred for this, to eat, breathe and sleep the work.
My father is happiest in his work. When we were growing up, I knew he loved being with us, but at the same time I could always tell he was still slightly at odds, half-preferring instead to be making rounds at the hospital.
I believe he must think of his work the way a seal thinks of the sea. Wanting always to dissolve into it, to return, even as he knows unfathomable hunters wait in it, to exploit him from below.
Stress, the silent predator slipping through us.
What must it be like for him, to have had a stroke? Ah, my gentle father. When I am home, we go to the Nelson Atkins together, we walk around slowly (his bad leg) and nod at the paintings, smiling at the old friends we know, exclaiming over new acquisitions.
Ah, jesus, how will I go on when you aren't here on the earth with me any longer? Here on our earth,
lost in our separate seas- your medical world, and mine-
I need to call home more often.
Because my father and I, we are kindred souls. There’s a lovely quote somewhere about how maybe the best of friends are made from the same stardust, from way back, and when we find one another it is the sweetest recognition.
This summer I was telling that quote to Christopher- back when I could remember it- he’d made us kumquat martinis, he was showing me around his backyard pointing where he wanted to put in a fountain.
(“Oh, my Christopher!”
“Oh, my lady!”)
So last week I ordered Andrew and I two sets of juggling balls. (After listening to a great conversation about how striving for ambidexterity improves the brain, reduces stress, is fun, etc- )
I give Andrew the box from Amazon. I’d been babbling about my mysterious gift for a week now, managing somehow not to spill the beans on what, exactly, it was- which is rare for me, possibly a first-ever-
He opens the cardboard, and then the cannister, shakes the colorful balls out into his hand.
He laughs, surprised and pleased.
He tries them out- drops them- instantly catches the bug- now we’re throwing the balls around, probably going to break something any minute- grinning, jumping around. Definitely not juggling, by any stretch of the word, but its fun trying.
He stops and watches me flail around like a gleeful idiot.
“Baby, if you can juggle gracefully for two minutes…” He grins harder and laughs, can’t finish his sentence. “...I'll give you a surprise!” he says, smiling hugely, laughing and laughing. We keep throwing the balls around the kitchen, giggling. Catching each others eyes. Ah, my dear honey.
Ah, my man's smile. One of the best I’ve ever given him. It's inward and stunned at itself. Love.
Love is a river at night, love is a rising sun. Always coming back around.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
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Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
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Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
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Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
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