July Fiction: Good People Like Us

July 11, 2012

For July, Katherine Lien Chariott brings us a story of a man caught in a damaged relationship with a woman he loves desperately.  Her story examines the question of why sometimes, even though they don't work, these relationships are the ones to which we continually return.

-- Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor

Of course, she’s completely crazy -- I accepted that long ago -- but I guess I am, too, because I’m the one moving out to Vegas to be with her so she can get yet another degree in art that we both know won’t do a thing for her “career.” Oh well, she said, when she called to tell me the news, Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. But, really, I thought, You don’t. You can give up and you can move on; you can grow up and get a real job, a real life. Really, you can. I didn’t say that, though, at least not to her, because it’s dangerous to try to break the delusion, and I’m more than a little afraid of her. And by afraid I mean physically afraid: she has tried to kill me. True, it was only once, and many years ago, in “Round One,” as she calls our first attempt at something like love, during a period when she was off her meds and eating way too much speed, but you never know. And though she denies serious intent now (the woman had a knife and used it, even if it was a shallow cut), she does remind me, too frequently, that she has murderers on both sides of her family.

Uncle Buzzy, for one, she likes to say. And my cousin Zu-lim in Taiwan, for two.

Just last week, when I came out to see her, she did it again. It was the last day of my visit, the very last hour, as I was packing up for L.A., when she started in on her crime-committing family tree. Thieves, she said, and pushers. Gamblers, too, can’t forget those. But all of them, they’re nothing compared to the real criminals.

Oh yeah? I said, bending down to shove a pair of sneakers into my bag, and refusing to let her faze me. Which real ones?

The murderers, she said. Of course. Got ‘em on both sides.

Both sides, I repeated.

You know it, she said. So remember that, when you deal with me. Never forget that I may be a mild-mannered grad student now --

But I cut her off before she could get to the only place she was going. Mild-mannered, I said. No one would accuse you of that. Don’t worry: if you ever kill someone, no one will be surprised, least of all me, even if I’m your victim.

I zipped the bag closed. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

Well, good, she said, pleased. Great.

Yeah, great, I said, but in a different tone. One that told the truth about me, and her, about us. And all that truth maybe makes me more than crazy, it maybe makes me stupid, for quitting my job and packing this car full of junk and driving it out to Vegas to kick off “Round Four” of our relationship. But I guess someone has to do it. Not move here and live with her, necessarily, but love her. And I do. I love her and I need her and god I want her, my wanna-be Lizzie Borden, and what’s so strange about that -- even Hitler had Eva Braun and she isn’t a monster on Hitler’s scale by any means, just a little monster. One who’s close at hand now that I’ve made my way past the Strip.     

I get her on the phone. Hey Monster, I say. I’m here. I feel a little excited and, I can’t help it, it creeps into my voice.

But her reply, as expected, is completely casual. Are you here-here, she says, Or just near-here?

I don’t answer right away. I turn into her apartment complex; drive past one then two then three identical orange-red buildings. Then I park. Here-here, I say. So come on down.

She does, and I get out of the car to greet her with a hug and a barb.

So, I say, Little Monster. Done anything horrible lately?

She shivers in my embrace, pressing herself against me under my coat, running her cold bony fingers under my shirt until she gets a reaction. Then pulls away.

No, she says. She reaches into the trunk and grabs my laptop, slings it over her shoulder and dashes away, her steps bouncy and triumphant. I know already that the rest of the trunk is mine to deal with: she won’t come back to help me, no matter what. I take a second to resent her for this, but then I start unpacking. I wrestle with a suitcase and a duffel bag and more; finally, loaded-down and slow, I make my way across the parking lot. By the time I get to her place (with its door wide-open on her mess, she sure doesn’t care who sees it), she’s put my computer in a corner and thrown herself down on the poor sagging couch. I stand in the doorway, waiting. Then I ask her what to do with my things. She rolls her eyes.

Over there, she says, pointing at the corner where she put my computer. Obviously.

I stay where I am. Wouldn’t it be better to put stuff away?

If you want, she says. It’s up to you. But we’re moving soon, anyhow, so it’s just a couple days, wherever things go.

She turns to look out the window at her stunning view of the dumpsters as she says this, so she can’t see my reaction on my face. As she well knows, we’re supposed to stay in this studio until her lease runs out five months from now, and then move. So, surely, she suspects it: I’m surprised by her announcement, and I’m angry, too. But, even if she suspects it, she refuses to see it, and I don’t make her know it, not yet.

Really? I say. I drop my things to the floor. That soon, huh? And your lease?

She turns to me and shrugs. Break it. This place is too small. We’ll never get along here.

I look around the apartment, and it is tiny, but it always has been, and we already talked about that. We talked, and we made plans, and we have an agreement, one I’m not about to give up just because she feels like it. Especially when part of the agreement is that I’m the one who’ll be paying for all this, for everything from rent on down now that we’re shacking up. (Fair is fair, she said, I am still a student. I didn’t answer, but that doesn’t make it fair.)

We have an agreement, I say. We have a plan.

I know, she says. She stands. But I made a new plan.

Listen, she says. Before you get mad. I totally meant it when I said we could stay here. I did. But then last night I was reading a Ray Carver story and that changed everything. She takes exactly five steps and now she’s three inches away from me. Get it? she says.

I nod. Oh I get it. You read a story and that changed things. May I ask how, exactly, it did that?

Well, she says. It’s simple. It just showed me that this apartment isn’t going to work out. That we need a bigger one, right away.

And she’s a pretty little monster, I have to admit it, smiling up at me now like she actually expects me to agree. But I don’t smile back. Her explanation bothers me. A random change in plans would have been bad enough, but this is somehow worse. I don’t like that poor dead Ray Carver is involved in this mess now. It seems disrespectful, somehow, and I have respect for artist-types, which is probably why I put up with her. But there’s more to it than that: I’m not exactly flattered to find out that this woman I’m with could read a sad story about sad people and think, Hey, that reminds me of my relationship. I want to say that to her now, but I’d feel too stupid when I already knew how cold she is, or can be. So instead of the long version I go with the short. A Ray Carver story reminded you of us? I say. Gee thanks. You know, you don’t have a romantic bone in your body.

Yes, Ray Carver, she says, her voice rising on the second syllable of that revered last name. Why not?

Then she’s defending herself, or rather defending Ray Carver, that dead dude who is famous and so doesn’t need her defense (hey, my sympathy for artists only goes so far), with a passion that she would never waste on me, saying that, so much you know, Ray Carver isn’t just down-and-out drunks and sad sacks defeated by life, oh no, many of his stories are intensely romantic. I note that she doesn’t say that she herself is romantic, doesn’t claim that the “devastating truth of love” that is, apparently, the heart of these particular stories she references without naming is what made her think of us. She doesn’t bother with that argument, knowing she can’t fool me, or maybe because it doesn’t even occur to her to lie. Instead she just says that he, Ray Carver, knew what it was to love and lose and how to write about it, goddamn it, and that, besides, she wasn’t saying that our relationship was anything like the relationship in the story -- and her tone implies that the difference is that our relationship doesn’t have enough love to be like the one in the story.

The story relates to us, she says primly, only in this: our choice of apartments.

She adds that it was the home in the story that made her think about us, because of our proposed living arrangements. That, in the story, this man and woman live in really cramped quarters. And, at one point, the man sits there in that cramped apartment and thinks how there isn’t anywhere to go, how there’s never anywhere to go. Literally.

Their small apartment, she says meaningfully, is obviously a metaphor for how he’s trapped by their relationship.

So? I say.

So, she concludes, this isn’t about me. We need to move for you. Honey, when you’re feeling trapped by me, I don’t want you to feel trapped by our apartment, too. I don’t want you to have literally nowhere to go. I want you to be able to stand up and walk into another room and feel trapped by me in there. Understand? she says.

Yeah, I say. But we’re still finishing your lease.

And that does it: her eyes narrow dangerously and she’s off and running. No? she cries. Are you telling me no? And, We’re not moving? she wails. And, who do I think I am to say no to a new apartment when just last night on the phone I said no to a dog when she’s wanted one ever since her mother gave away her little shih-tzu Tai-Wang when she was innocently off in the fifth grade, and couldn’t do anything about it? Who do I think I am, to deny her a decent apartment, when I’ve already denied her a goddamn dog? Of course, she’s crying now, and anyone else would feel sorry for her, but I know the truth, which is that she only cries for effect or because she’s angry, never when she’s sad or sorry or sincere.

Forget it! she screams. If we’re not moving, then forget it. No Round Four!

Don’t say that unless you mean it, I say.

She shakes her head for an answer. I should have known, she says, considering who I’m dealing with. First, you take my virginity, then you hit me, then you leave me for dead, and then it’s over, our whole damn relationship, just like that. God, I should never have gotten involved with you. Not the first time, or the second, or the third. And certainly not now! She punches me, hard, in the arm at the end of each of her sentences. Then punches me one last time (this one as hard as she can; she actually jumps into the punch) in the shoulder, to punctuate the speech as a whole. Finally, she storms into the bathroom and slams the door, either to get away from me or to stop me from defending myself. She knows well what I might say, since I’ve said it before during similar arguments: that our relationship just wasn’t like that. That, even Round One, which she’s sort of describing, just wasn’t like that. True, I did take her virginity, but she wanted me to, and it wasn’t like we weren’t totally in love when we did it; we were, or at least I was. And yes, I did hit her, I slapped her one time during one of her hysterical fits the first month we were together, but she slapped me right back and after that I never hit her again, even though she keeps hitting me to this very day. Or how about this: I could say, and have said in the past, No, I did not leave her for dead. I was supposed to come over one night (thirteen years ago! And clear across the country! Will she never let this go?) and instead I had a snowball fight with my friends, immature and thoughtless for a twenty-one-year-old, yes, but how was I supposed to know she was burning up with fever or that, by the time I made it to her door, she’d be in the emergency room? And, as for the end, she left me, despite all my attempts to stop her, and wouldn’t talk to me afterwards, not for a year, not until she was ready to start up again (with the goal in mind, she later claimed, of just leaving me a second time) -- what about that? And what about all the things I’ve done, during Rounds One, Two and Three, to try and make this thing work, and all the lying and cheating and craziness she’s done to fuck it up?

What about all that, I could scream, and in the end I do. I scream out all my accusations -- a list of her faults and her crimes, the men she has cheated on me with, and even the girls -- at the bathroom door.

Then I’m done, and silent, and the door is still closed.

I wait a minute, and then another, but the chipped white paint before me gives no clue about anything. Finally, I knock. Almost immediately, she opens up. She stands staring up at me with blazing eyes.

May I help you? she says.

You’re crazy, I say. Do you know that? 

Maybe. But you’re here anyway and so is all your crap. So what does crazy have to do with anything?

I don’t know, I say. But you are. And not even nice-crazy, or fun-crazy. You’re bad-crazy, mean-crazy, and a lot of the time just plain boring-crazy. You’re a monster.

But she’s a pretty little monster, even now with her face totally frozen, her eyes blank and flat. This is the face she wears when she’s scared or sad -- her real face. I can’t help myself, I caress her cheek. She lets me, then takes my hand and holds it.

So, she says, and her voice is falsely brave, just one note shy of breaking, but also just one note shy of being dead-on confident. I’m a monster. What’s new? Are you staying or what? Is there gonna be a Round Four?

I don’t answer.

Good, she says, recovered in a flash, and now we’re back to where we were before the fight. ‘Cause I’ve already found us a place. A big one-bedroom, just six-thirty a month. Cheap, huh?

I nod and put my arms -- still smarting from where she hit me -- around her. I close my eyes. Six-thirty, exactly one hundred dollars more than this place. A small price to pay, really, for the extra space, for the end of the fight, for a fourth try at first love, for yet another chance to not screw things up.

Cheap, I say. Definitely.

Definitely, she repeats, looking at me for a second like I’m the only thing in the universe. Then she looks past me, over my shoulder. Hey, she says. Wanna close the door?          

I turn around. Yes, the door is wide open, and it has been all this time, ignored and then forgotten by both of us. I step forward and put my hand on the knob. That’s when I see him, the man in the hallway, a shadowy figure watching us. Our eyes meet, but the man doesn’t turn away. Instead, he comes closer, until the only thing that separates us is the blank space that should be filled by the door. He stands there, black-haired and stubble-cheeked, a dirty white tee-shirt stretched tight over his belly, and smiles.

Hey there, he says. Having problems?

I don’t know how to answer, but I don’t have to. My monster does it for us. Asshole, she says. She slams the door hard.

He sure is, I say. Then I laugh. Well, I guess I’m glad we’re getting out of here now.

What? she says. Because of him? Please! He fights with his girlfriend all the time. Besides, you and me, we’ve been caught worse than this.

And we have: we never were good at keeping our dirty laundry at home. But I still lock the closed door and bolt out our witness. And that’s enough (just barely) for us to move on, to do what we do: have dinner, get drunk, have sex, fight, get high, go to bed, have sex again. We do what we do, but through all these things, I feel the gaze of that man in the hall, and I feel ashamed and known. The feeling is so strong, it’s with me even hours later, when she’s passed out, but I’m still awake, pinned down in her bed by her arm flung over me, trapped in this room where all our stuff is crowded together. I listen to her breathe and I want to escape to the hallway, but I don’t dare because I can’t stand to meet that neighbor. Instead, I go to the bathroom and lock myself in, like she did during our fight. This just makes me feel worse.

Finally, I tell myself how ridiculous it is to hide from a stranger. I’ll get out of the apartment get a little air and get a little freedom. Fuck it if that man sees me, he’s no saint either. But I’m still careful on my way out the door. I poke my head out first and only go forward once I know the hall is empty and dark. One step, then two, and already I’m better. Three steps, four and five, and now I hear sounds that draw me to the door of the man I wanted to avoid. There, I hear that man, so quiet in the shadows watching us, so mocking when he said hello, screaming out curses and threats at a woman (some cunt, some whore, some nothing) who weeps so violently she can barely answer back (but she does: she just wants to know, why are you so mean to me, she just wants to know, why don’t you leave me then?)

The sound of his screams and her sobs, that terrible give and take and take, is beautiful to me, a love song. It makes me and my little monster seem normal and good, just like everyone else maybe, maybe even a little bit better. And, as I listen, I start to believe it: that all the problems we’ve had are in the past, and not so very bad, really; that, really, they’re romantic; that our relationship itself is romantic too; that we might even be like, though I can’t be sure, the couple in that damn Ray Carver story she loves so much but didn’t bother to name.



Katherine Lien Chariott’s prose has been published in literary magazines including Post Road, upstreet, Columbia, and The Literary Review. She holds an MFA from Cornell University, and a PhD from UNLV, where she was a Schaeffer Fellow in fiction.