semantikon feature literature
Oct. 2004
Stacy Sims
About e-stories:
“I have started on this series of stories where the characters are related -- in the case of these three because they are co-workers -- but are disconnected to one another because each character is conducting a huge part of their lives on the internet. I am interested in what happens, fictionally, when the virtual reality seems more important than or indistinguishable from actual reality.”
Stacy Sims’ first novel, Swimming Naked, was published by Viking in April of 2004. The Chicago Tribune called it “a fresh, edgy … brutally moving first novel” where “Sims works toward a stunningly beautiful climax while bringing painful pictures into excruciating focus.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Sims' writing borders on sublime as it delivers an unsentimental, deeply moving testament to the power of love and forgiveness.” Swimming Naked was also a selected by Border’s for their national Original Voices Program.

Sims was a monthly columnist for Cincinnati Magazine in 2003 and had published articles in Yoga for Everybody and Northern Ohio Live.

Prior to her writing career, Sims worked in communications and in the arts. She was a publicist for the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, and created educational programming for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and also produced and managed traveling art exhibitions for her own company, Exhibition Management, where she worked with leading artists and museums around the country and abroad.

Currently, she owns Pendleton Pilates and is at work on her second novel, They Shoot Horses. She lives in downtown, Cincinnati.

About Artist:

stacy sims, novelist, cincinnati ohio, exclusive excerpt, e-stories, pendleton pilates, swimming naked
Bend the Mirror
(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.”

     For 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.

     She 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 goddamned affair.

     She 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 a thing.

     She 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.

     Jesse 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.

     “Want 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.

     Jim 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.

     “Oh, 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 habit.

     “Where’s Sam?” she asked, nearly pulling off playful and light.

     “She’s already off with Noonie. So what do you say? Should we give it a go again?” Jim asked.

     She laughed, “Give me a little recovery time! And could you make me some fresh coffee? I could
use a cup.”

     “I don’t doubt that,” he laughed as she walked into the bathroom.

     “Jesse?” he called out. She poked her head back out the door and looked down the hall at her husband.

     “I’ve missed you,” he said. Jesse smiled and nodded and ducked back into the bathroom.

     “Shit,” she 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.

     She 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?”

     “Let’s 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.

     “It’s 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 television show.

     Jesse 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.

     “So 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 friends.

     “Uh 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.”

     Jesse 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.

     “And 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 bit.

     “Mom!” Sam 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!”

     “It’s 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?

     “I don’t have any parents. I live with my granddaddy,” she said. “He was the sheriff up until last year.”

     Jesse 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.

     The 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.

     So 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 another beer.

     What 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.

     Jesse 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.

     She 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.

     Jesse 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.

     “Bend 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.