(An excerpt from the novel-in-progress “They Shoot Horses” )
Jesse opened her eyes and
shut them again immediately. The morning sun coming through the bedroom window
was too much to bear. She opened one eye just enough to be able to read the clock
on the bedside table. She had to move aside a wine glass to see it. Since the
clock wasn’t digital and she was horribly hung over, it took her a few
seconds to discern that it was 11:45 am; technically still morning, but just
barely. Her mouth was so dry it felt like she had been sucking on chalk in her
sleep and her head was throbbing. These were not unusual sensations for Jesse;
the cotton mouth and pounding headache. She pulled the covers up over her eyes
to block out the sun for another few seconds and felt the sheets rub against
her naked and slightly sun burnt body. This was a very unusual sensation for
Jesse; the feeling of the crisp, cotton sheets against her bare body rather than
her impenetrable pajamas. And this was a very bad sign.
She reached down with one hand to touch between
her legs. “Shit,” she whispered. “Shit, shit, shit.”
a moment, she was terrified. She was alone in the bedroom
of her silent vacation house. She was naked and had had sex.
That much she knew. But the rest was a complete blank. She
had no recollection of much of the night before. Specifically,
she had no recollection of coming to bed or having sex. And
in the void of any real memory, when reality has been obliterated
by the hopeless, disgusting situation of way too damn much
to drink, Jesse conjured up the very worst things a person
can imagine. She ran through the nastiest scenarios first.
Her husband and daughter are dead, she was simply raped.
Or she did something so terrible that her family up and left
her, finding some seedy motel on the mainland for the night,
trying to decide whether or not to call the authorities.
heard footsteps outside. She could hear someone coming up
the steps from the beach and onto the deck. Her heart started
to pound. She felt like she was going to have a heart attack,
lying in the bed naked, afraid to move. Then she heard whistling.
She breathed a momentary sigh of relief. It was the “I’ve
just gotten laid” tune of a happy husband, her husband,
likely returning from a long walk on the beach. So clearly,
he wasn’t dead and likely she hadn’t done anything
to piss him off. In fact, it now seemed more likely that
she had gone and engaged in some hot, vacation sex last night.
And this was a problem for two reasons. First, Jesse hadn’t
had sex with her husband in over a year for good reason.
She was punishing him. And if she chose to cross her own
picket line, she wanted to do it on her own volition. This
brought her to the second, far larger problem. The fact that
she had no memory of the sex or anything that led up to it
created a big, tactical dilemma. This sort of amnesia put
her at a huge disadvantage in the war she was waging against
her husband, particularly because there is no way in hell
she could ever let on that she couldn’t remember the
night before. Because that might lead to the discussion of
an entirely different problem; one that Jesse was still somehow
convinced she did not have and one that would indicate that
Jesse was the problem in their marriage, not Jim and his
reached over to suck down the last sour sip of sun-baked
wine. She began to comb her memory to try to piece together
the night before for any clues that might help her conduct
herself as she walked out of the bedroom and smack dab into
a post-coital conversation with her lover/husband. Had they
had a fight and gotten a little rough, then had some aggressive,
make up sex? Had they had some meaningful, conciliatory conversation,
cried together, and then fucked like teenagers? It was like
having a black hole in her memory. She couldn’t remember
had to get up and into the bathroom to buy some time. Her
Capri pants, polo shirt, bra and panties were in a heap beside
her bed. The toe of one sandal poked out from under them;
the other sandal was up against the wall under the window
where it had been cast aside in a drunken, disrobing frenzy.
gathered up her clothes and tip toed out of the bedroom toward
the bathroom down the hall. She was just about to step through
the door, safe, when she heard him behind her.
some company in there?” Jim asked. She froze, and then
looked over her shoulder at him, moving the hand with the
Capri pants in them behind her, to cover her bare, fat ass.
was leaning against the wall, already obscenely tan from
just one full day in the sun. And Jesse could tell by his
smile and his relaxed posture that he thought everything
was a-okay now that she had had sex with him. And he was
probably ready to go at it again, banging away at her from
behind while she tried not to drown in the shower. Fucking
men, she thought.
you!” was all she could think to say. He looked startled
and hurt. She hadn’t intended to sound like a bitch.
She was trying to buy time to try to recall at least a few
details. But her tone had been punishing. It was a well worn
Sam?” she asked, nearly pulling off playful and light.
already off with Noonie. So what do you say? Should we give
it a go again?” Jim asked.
laughed, “Give me a little recovery time! And could
you make me some fresh coffee? I could
use a cup.”
don’t doubt that,” he laughed as she walked into
called out. She poked her head back out the door and looked
down the hall at her husband.
missed you,” he said. Jesse smiled and nodded and ducked
back into the bathroom.
said, her bare back sliding down the wall against the cold
tile, pulling a towel off the rack next to her to cover her
naked flesh as she sunk all the way to a seated position
on the floor. She had to try to remember what happened before
she blacked out. This was a far more compelling and distracting
problem than the fact of the alcohol-induced memory loss
itself. So Jesse replayed the day in her head.
fast forwarded through the morning. She sped past the part
where she got angrier and angrier as she waited for Jim and
Sam to show up from wherever the hell they had gone to, past
the part where she had decided on a Bloody Mary for breakfast
since it was her vacation and because she double deserved
it seeing as though she had been abandoned by her family
on the very first day of the holiday. More anger. A second
Bloody Mary; screw them! She whizzed past the part where
she sat out on the deck with an important, literary novel
she had ordered over the internet, past the part where she
slammed it shut after encountering Budapest, scatological,
Kandinsky and ‘tout individu a des empreintes uniques’ all
within the first three paragraphs. She careened past the
third vodka-heavy, not-so-Bloody Mary, past the part where
Jim walked in, eyed the Stoli bottle, and said something
about Sam and a local girl and a horse. Actually, their conversation
was a little blurry, especially at the fast-forwarded pace.
By then, the details were already getting a little wet and
runny, like a watercolor in the rain. But this is where Jesse
slowed down the replay of the story in her head, because
this is precisely when Sam limped up the stairs from the
beach with a skinned up knee, onto the deck and into the
kitchen. Jesse had been about to ask about Sam’s injury
when she saw that girl. That girl was enough to sober up
anyone, and fast.
“Hi, Mom. This is Noonie,” Sam said,
her voice muffled behind the refrigerator door. She stood up and turned toward
Jesse. “Can we have lunch?”
make lunch for your mom and dad, Sam,” Noonie said. “Would
that be okay with you, Mr. Fitzpatrick, Mrs. Fitzpatrick?” Noonie
asked, with more politeness crammed in two sentences than
Jesse had heard from Sam or her usual girlfriends in the
last four years. She had a deep, rough voice. It was an old
woman’s voice, the voice of someone who spent some
time as an Alabama prison guard, not that of a young girl.
okay with me on one condition. Please call me Jim, Noonie,” Jim
instructed. Jesse had stood there silent, an insincere smile
stretched over her clenched teeth. This was all very confusing.
Sam’s bizarre looking, half-breed, hip-hop girlfriend
was soon cooking an omelet as though she was a celebrity
chef and Sam was an anchorwoman and this was their sunny,
morning news show kitchen. And the three of them, Jim, Noonie
and Sam were terribly chummy, as though they had been friends
for years. It felt like she was watching herself on a reality
fast forwarded the tape through to after lunch, until after
they had finished a remarkably tasty and well-constructed
cheese and zucchini omelet with a walnut, orange salad served
to them by a giggling Sam and a dead-serious Noonie, after
Sam rattled on about a spill on her bike (hence the limp
and abrasions), Noonie’s house (more books than a library!)
and horse (was a wild horse, now tamed!) and her generally
amazing life (home schooled, studying veterinary science
and she is only 13!) on the Outer Banks.
you live here year-round?” Jesse asked Noonie, addressing
her for the first time. Noonie put down her knife and fork
which she had been masterfully commandeering as though she
were British royalty. Her impeccable manners were a stark
contrast to her strange appearance and her voice. She was
not nearly as polished when she spoke, but you could tell
she was trying as hard as she could to conduct herself properly,
which was more than Jesse could say the rest of Sam’s
huh,” she said. A pained look flittered across her
eyes and she blinked quickly as though to compose herself,
staring deeply and earnestly across the table, straight at
Jesse, as though this second, this conversation with Jesse
was the key to Noonie’s entire future. “I mean,
yes ma’am. I do live here.”
looked down at her drink. This girl made her very uncomfortable
and not just because of her ratted hair and barbed wire tattoo.
Since when did someone, anyone, care what she thought? Since
when did someone so obviously desire her attention and affection?
In fact, this whole scene made her very uncomfortable. Since
when did they all sit around like one big, happy family out
on the second-story deck enjoying lunch in full view of the
Atlantic Ocean? Since when did she have to actually know
how to talk to one of Sam’s friends? She was used to
pretty much ignoring them and being ignored in return. She
had a few stock questions, but that was it.
what do your parents do?” Jesse asked, playing with
her food. It had never seemed a snobby question before but
it suddenly sounded ridiculous and mean-spirited, even to
her. She took a sip of her fourth, hardly-any-vodka-at-all
Bloody Mary. She had made it in full view of her family,
with great fanfare as she put less than a teaspoon drip of
vodka into the drink as though it were hot pepper and she
was just looking to spice up the drink the tiniest little
yelled as she pushed her chair back from the table. “That
doesn’t matter. That is what you always ask my friends
and it doesn’t matter!”
okay,” Noonie said, smiling at all of Jesse, smiling
at the whole family to convey that everything really was
okay. She turned toward Sam, bringing her arm across her
chest as though pledging allegiance with her fist. She knocked
on her chest twice, quickly, in some Black Panther-esque
sign of solidarity with Sam. Sam grinned and returned this
salute. Christ almighty, Jesse thought. They
just met, what, an hour ago and they already have some secret
frickin language with hand signals and everything?
don’t have any parents. I live with my granddaddy,” she
said. “He was the sheriff up until last year.”
stopped the tape in her head for a minute. She wrapped herself
up in a towel and then rummaged through her cosmetic bag
under the sink for her hidden stash of cigarettes. She turned
on the shower and the fan to create the illusion that she
was, indeed, showering rather than trying to recreate the
details of a day she should easily remember while smoking
stale, menthol cigarettes.
first drag off the cigarette hit her hard. She felt dizzy
and sick. She leaned over the toilet, waiting to vomit, gagging
a bit to see what might come up. She tossed the lit cigarette
in the toilet and flushed it down. She got into the shower
and stood pressed up against the back wall, waiting for the
water to warm up once the toilet finished running and give
back the hot water. Jesse decided she was going to have to
put her investigation on fast-forward to figure out how she
was going to face her husband. She couldn’t stay in
the bathroom forever.
Jesse moved through the rest of the chronology of the day
quickly, past when she claimed she wanted to resume reading
the excellent novel she had just started and took to her
bed to commence a long, afternoon nap; past all the overexcited
hoopla over Jim’s offer to grill out hamburgers; past
the part where she walked back up the house from the beach
to refill her wine glass, offering on the first trip to get
sweaters for the girls and on the second trip to get Jim
she also recalled is that up until the point where she started
to get too drunk to form simple words or walk without feeling
like she was rounding a steep curve in the wind, that the
night was actually sort of fun. She caught a fast glimpse
of Sam and Noonie huddled together under a blanket beside
a neighbor’s beach fire like they were conjoined twins,
with Noonie manning the stick with the marshmallow on the
end of it. She saw herself leaning up against Jim, mainly
to keep her balance, but also enjoying the sturdiness of
his windbreaker-clad arms and chest. She remembered that
when the wild horses strolled up to the fence just up the
beach and Sam and Noonie snuck toward them like bandits in
the dark, the wind captured Sam’s twinkling, rhapsodic
laughter and blew it right into her ears, like it was a gift
just for her. Toward the end of the night, before it became
lost to her entirely, she had a vague memory of gazing over
the top of the bonfire and letting herself succumb to one
of Noonie’s curiously direct gazes. She thinks she
might have even winked at her, a conspirator’s acknowledgement
that Jesse thought she was a-okay and that it was a good
thing to have her around.
stepped under the shower and lifted her chin so her face
was being pelted by hot water. She decided that the only
way to pull this off was to pretend that she had indeed forgiven
her husband. Maybe the best plan was to try to ride that
feeling she had had a glimpse of in the car on the trip here
and then again last night and see if she might allow forgiveness
or one of its less ambitious relatives, like acceptance,
to take residence in her miserable spirit for awhile.
cleaned herself up quickly. She was suddenly eager to begin
her day. She was smiling by the time she got out of the shower.
In addition to feeling like someone had run her over with
a truck, and then backed up over her before running over
her again, she also felt slightly relieved. It had been a
lonely year maintaining her rigid separatist’s policy.
And it might be nice to have some company again.
wiped the condensation off the full length mirror on the
back of the bathroom door and took a good look at herself.
She was wrapped in a skimpy, threadbare towel that barely
covered her fat. Her hair was plastered around her face in
an unattractive, close-cropped helmet. Her sun burnt chest
and shoulders were bright red and the skin that had taken
cover under her swim suit straps was a shocking white. Jesse
frowned. Something was wrong; something besides all the usual
problems with her appearance. She was an expert in her own
flaws but this was all wrong. She put her finger in the middle
of the mirror and pressed it firmly into the door. Whew!
Once she bent the mirror, she was a wee bit taller and ever
so slightly leaner. When she took her finger off the mirror,
it was an even uglier reality than seemed necessary or fair.
She pressed the mirror tightly against the door again.
the mirror,” Jesse said quietly, watching her mouth
form the words, watching her reflection do the work. “Bend
the mirror,” she mouthed again, this time without making
a single sound.