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Night Swimming: Copyedited

by jenn22580 

Posted: 03 October 2005
Word Count: 6620
Summary: A prize for the first person who manages to trawl through the whole story! It ran away from me, and is 1600 words over my self-imposed 5000 word limit. So what happened? Is it overpopluated? Too convoluted? I would like to reign it back in a bit, so I would welcome suggestions. I haven't given too much more thought to the imperative problem, so it is still in the story for now, for better or worse. Part one is slightly revised (only slightly), and the rest begins with the bold text.

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Retrospectively, you suppose, your break-up with Eric and your cat came as no surprise. For the past few months, Eric had stopped doing your laundry. You would come home from class to find his t-shirts in neatly arranged piles on the futon or in the dresser, while your wardrobe remained strewn around the apartment. You suspected, too, that he was poisoning Knitty Whiskers against you. Knitty Whiskers, whom you bottle-fed until he was two, suddenly began hissing at you any time you entered the room, and coughing hairballs into your lap. Three nights ago when Eric broke up with you, he simply held the door open and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I really can’t be with you any more. You’re just…kind of insipid and directionless lately. Besides, I want some freedom before it’s too late.’ You had been in denial about the relationship for a while, and had purposely not made provisions for summer housing. Now, dumped, you have been humiliated into living with your dad until September.

For the first two days and nights, your dad was a champ. He packed and unpacked your boxes, did all of your washing, and listened sympathetically while you whined and cried. He stroked your back, sighing deeply and whispering, ‘Pookie…’

Pookie: the name of Garfield’s teddy bear, and your dad's nickname for you since you were in utero.

For two days, he did his best to impart fatherly knowledge. He wanted to prepare you for the pain that lay ahead. ‘Pookie, the rule of thumb is that it takes twice as long to recover from a relationship as the relationship actually lasted.’ You lived with Eric since your second week of college. You can barely stomach the thought of being miserable for another day, let alone six years, going by your dad’s mathematics.
‘Does that mean you’ll still be getting over Mom for another twenty-four years?’ Your parents were married for seventeen years, and have been divorced for ten, during which time your father had a slew of short-term mid-life crises: wives the same age as your brother.

Now, you and your father sit beside one another in the kitchen, wobbling on barstools. He blows cigarette smoke out the backdoor, clouding the dark May night, while you rest your head on the tile countertop, and cry until you are plum-coloured and dry heaving.

Your dad’s patience has wafted away with his Marlboro smoke. Instead of consoling you, he pounds the countertop with his fist and makes generally unhelpful comments like, ‘I’ll kill that bastard if I ever see him again!’ His glass of Campari shatters from the force. The side of his hand is suddenly embedded with a dozen shards of glass. Find some tweezers and alcohol, and hold his hand in yours as you try to see the glass through your tears. His hand feels strange in yours- heavy and too hairy. As you continue to tweeze and apply Band-Aids, you realise this is the first time you’ve held, even touched, his hand since your childhood. He has always been a kind, gentle man, whose age and moustache terrified you as a child. Give his hand a reassuring squeeze, which makes him scream in pain. Apologise and wail louder.

Your dad can take no more of your crying. He plies you with a hot toddy laced with sedatives, and sends you to your room at eight pm.

Sit Indian-style in your closet and call your brother, who is fourteen years your senior. Sesame Street puppets and your nephew screech in the background. Your brother tries to soothe you, but can’t relate to your pierced heart. ‘Lainey and I have been together since we were sixteen,’ he reminds you.
Tell him you hate him.
He falls silent. He dislikes dealing with people, not least you, with your disposition. He switches tactics, and tries to bribe you: he will give you his old BMX bike (which, from the best of your knowledge, has not been ridden since before you were born) in exchange for an apology. You grudgingly oblige. The bike, you recall, is covered with skull decals. It will match your outlook on life.

As the days pass, continue to wallow in self-pity. Your mother sends you a tattered paperback, musty and yellowed with age, which she picked up at a second-hand shop. The outdated book, entitled How to Get Over the Loss of a Loved One, offers no helpful advice. Its author has anthologised quotes from people whose children and spouses have died following long bouts with illness. Perhaps this should make you feel better. Perhaps you should realise that your problems aren’t that bad. Instead, embark on your own melodramatic stages of healing and recovery: glower and be spiteful to all relatives, make a show of putting your dinner (untouched) down the garbage disposal, don’t leave the house or get dressed except to work at the card shop.

At work, steal cards. Send Eric hostile, tear-stained ramblings each week; sign each card with the pleadings of N*SYNC: ‘I want you back!’ Invariably, he does not respond. Stalk him online. By now, he even deletes your emails. Perform lengthy internet searches about getting revenge.

Your father suggests counselling. He hopes, you suspect, that you will be given drugs.

Start sleeping a split-shift: eleven-to-three, six-to-ten. In the hours you spend awake during the night, befriend the Home Shopping Network. Compulsively buy a foam mattress, an assortment of squeegees, and a mini snooker table for your dad. Every night, you follow the same pattern; dozing, then falling out of bed, then dozing. You usually wake mid-morning with magazines plastered to your thigh and arm.

Grow rakishly thin, refusing to eat anything for weeks except your dad’s grilled cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off. When he begins to squawk concern about your weight, create fictitious lunch dates. Neglect food until you grow dizzy at work. Cycle home with your skirt tucked between your legs like a giant denim diaper, unable to focus on cars or traffic lights. Houses float past in a blur of terra cotta, stucco, and windsocks. You discover that starvation acts as a powerful drug. The weight of the world lifts from you, replaced by a sense of numbness and power.

One day, as you simper at home, your dad beckons you to the roof terrace. Someone is having a barbeque nearby, the scent of which peppers the air in a coal and mesquite perfume. A plane roars overhead, so close you can detect individual screws and panels on its underbelly. Your dad puffs on his cigarette as insistently as if he is snorting coke and surveys you. ‘Pookie, you’re very pale,’ he finally says, exhaling.
Your father, ten years retired, rarely leaves the house and never ventures further than the local 7-11, by car. He subsists primarily on a diet of cigarettes and ice cream, and is himself no friend to sunlight.
‘Too much sun is bad for you,’ you say.
‘I know, but you’re starting to look like you live in Siberia, not Southern California. Why don’t you go to the beach?’ He gestures, over rooftops and across alleyways, two blocks south. He speaks in rich, enthusiastic tones, as if you live in Maui rather than along the Port of Long Beach. He has never seen, you are sure, what he refers to euphemistically as ‘the beach’. There are no umbrellas for rent, no hot-dog vendors, just a brown-and-black mottled patch of sand, bisected by a cement boardwalk, which is cracked like tectonic plates. Soiled condoms litter the sand, wrinkled and anaemic as tapeworms.
‘That,’ you quip, ‘is no beach. I could get murdered down there.’
'Why don't you call Poppy? She might like to hang out here for a few days.'
'She's back in Washington for the summer.'
Shades of Angry Dad threaten to return. Begin to regret your insolence. Your father is tolerant of many things, but has little time for your theatrics. ‘There are five hundred fucking miles of coastline out there!’ He glances at you sidelong, then delivers his ultimatum swiftly: ‘I will give you,’ he says, ‘four more weeks to feel sorry for yourself. I will. You’re going through a bad time, I understand that. But you’re twenty years old, for God’s sake. I want you out of this house in August. I’m going to find a camp for you.’
‘Camp? Dad, only teenagers go to camp. There are no camps for adults.’
‘Would you rather spend a month at your mother’s?’
‘Well, it will be good for you to go away and make some new friends. I’ll look around until I find something.’


On a Friday night in mid-July, your friend and soon-to-be roommate Sam collects you for a party in LA, hosted by someone she knows in summer housing. She thinks you look fabulous thin. It’s done wonders for your face, she says, like you’ve had plastic surgery. She wants you to get drunk and meet new boys.
‘You should date someone like your dad,’ she suggests.
Your friends all love your devoted daddy.
‘What, like a sugar daddy? Someone sixty-five years old?’
Sam laughs. ‘That’s not what I mean.’
‘Someone who calls me “Godzilla in Street Clothes?”’
‘No! Stop! I just mean…someone who’s nice to you. Someone who dotes.’
You sigh, express distrust in college boys. Say, as soon as you decide it, ‘I just want to be left alone.’
Sam leans past you, rummages through the glove box. ‘Don’t be bitter just because one guy dumped you.’
‘I’m not bitter.’
She veers out into traffic. ‘You are bitter. Listen, it’ll be good for you to meet someone new. Rebound sex is no bad thing, you know.’

The party is in full swing by the time you arrive. Kegs of beer nestle against the couch, and punch bowls of cocktails dot every available surface. Sam drags you to a corner, makes you toss back double shots of tequila. You cough and fight the urge to dry heave. Scan the room for people you know. Sam leads you out to the balcony so she can smoke.

You have still not caught the sun this summer, and your dad’s right: you look like shit. Your legs, for starters, are translucent. You are heavily made up, to disguise your fatigue, but still feel charmless.

Lean on the balcony’s railing, watching the action on the sidewalk below. A couple sits near the gutter, arguing. Several people call up to you, ask if the party is any good.
Sam nudges you. ‘Don’t look now, but that guy is checking you out.’
Glance over your shoulder at the crowd behind you. ‘Who?’ You can’t see beyond a pack of hippie girls and a bespectacled boy you had freshman year astronomy with. ‘That guy with glasses?’
‘No. Don’t look. He’s wearing a cap. I think I’ve met him at a couple of parties. He’s okay.’
Turn around to face the crowd. Sure enough, your gaze meets a boy in a hat. He looks you up and down, gives you a big smile, and comes straight for you. Sam pats you on the shoulder, whispers, ‘Good luck. I hope I don’t see you again tonight.’
Hiss at her, ‘I don’t pick people up at parties. You’d better not leave without me.’
She slides the glass door open and heads inside.

The boy somehow manages to shake your hand and slip you a giant Dixie cup of Long Island Iced Tea in one swift move. You are already holding a half-filled beer. You shift awkwardly, double-fisting.
‘I’m Cass,’ he says.
‘Cass. Cassius. As in “he killed Julius Caesar.’”
Feel ignorant. Say, although it is a guess: ‘I thought that was Brutus.’
There is a glint in his eye, something akin to pride. ‘Cassius was the conspirator.’
Take a deep breath. ‘I’m Carlie. I’m a friend of Sam’s.’
He has waltzed you into a corner. You point through the sliding glass door, to where Sam is changing the host’s playlist.

Cass takes off his cap to reveal vaguely auburn hair and hazel eyes. He’s quite good-looking, but bears a disconcerting resemblance to you. Wonder if you are narcissistic. Cass presses against you, with the tight, trim body of a rock-climber. Eric, despite all the things you used to adore about him, had been undeniably flabby, so having firm pectorals and abs touching you is a new experience entirely. When he kisses you a moment later, you spill both your drinks on the hippies. He is only the third person you’ve ever kissed.

You crack your eyes open at dawn in a room filled with imitation bling. A poster of some rap guy- Nellie: he’s got a Band-Aid on his face- stares down at you. Cass sprawls on the floor beside you, bottomless.
Fixate on an autographed photo of Snoop. He would be proud of you. You have become, you think, a trick-ass bitch. Struggle into your clothes, and do what Snoop suggests in the song of his you know, the filthy one- leave your number on the cabinet.

Later, you slink through your dad’s front door, with your clothes rumpled and scattered hair. Your mascara has congealed under your eyes, and you can smell alcohol seeping from your pores. You look, quite frankly, like you’ve just been fucked. Try to slip past your dad, to dash to the bathroom without being discovered. He is suddenly fleet of foot, and corners you in the hallway. ‘You’re a mess.’
‘I know. I just slept on someone’s floor. What do you expect? Besides, I thought you wanted me out of the house. You can’t criticise.’
‘Did you meet anyone nice?’
Look him straight in the eye. ‘I did meet someone. I’m not sure yet whether he’s nice or not.’

Amazingly, Cass starts calling you. Like you, he lives at home for the summer. Sleep with him six times in the next three weeks, on his friends’ floors and couches. There is no exchange of meals or movies, or even bodily fluids or gratitude, not really. There is just sex, but it feels more chaste than you ever imagined a sexual relationship could be. You can’t decide if you’re being daring or are really bored and pathetic, but you’re always there to answer the phone when he calls every few days. You find yourself driving the forty miles to campus like a woman possessed, meeting in the shadows outside euphemistically-named halls of residence: Seven Gables and Regal Trojan. Each time, you lie awake for a long time afterwards, listening to the slow rhythm of Cass’ heart and staring at nothing. On the mornings after, in your car, repeat your mantra: ‘I will not get emotionally involved.’ Each time, you swear you won’t see him again, but it’s like trying to walk single-file when you’re in kindergarten: you can’t stay in line.

You are packing for camp, late, when your cell phone rings. Your brother and sister-in-law have escaped to the faux-Dutch village of Solvang, to ‘ride bikes and make more babies’ (as your sister-in-law so disgustingly phrased it), which means that Baby Number One, your two-year-old nephew, is bunking with you. Snatch up your phone and rush out of the room, before your nephew stirs.
‘Hey!’ Cass calls. You can hear wind in the background. He must be driving. ‘You still going away tomorrow?’
‘Yeah. I’m just packing now.’
‘Well, it just happens that I’m driving past Long Beach. Maybe I’ll stop by. What exit do I take?’
The door to your dad’s bedroom is closed, but you walk out to the roof terrace anyway. ‘Sorry, my nephew’s here. You can’t come over.’
‘Aw, come on. I won’t see you for two weeks.’
Insist: ‘We live in a duplex. There’s no privacy and no room. I might get in trouble.’
‘Trouble? I’m off the freeway now anyway. Tell me where to go and I’ll just pop in for a second.’

Pace on the dewy patch of grass in front of your dad’s house. Light from the front room leaks through the stained-glass window, bathing the sidewalk in red and purple diamonds. When Cass pulls up a few minutes later, try to keep him in his car. He begs: ‘I’ll just come up for ice cream. We’ll be quiet. Come on. I’m not going to see you for two weeks.’
This somehow sounds illogical, since you’ve only known him for a few weeks, but your dad does have gallons of ice cream squirreled away.
After two bowls, Cass whispers, ‘I want to meet your nephew.’
‘You can’t. He’s asleep.’
He pulls you down from your barstool and leads you down the corridor. Outside your dad’s bedroom, he whispers, ‘In here?’
‘Shhhh. No! The other room. You have to be quiet, okay?’
In your bedroom, Cass hovers over your nephew, considers him. ‘He’s not really a baby, is he?’
‘Shhhhh! No, he’s almost three. Come on, you have to leave now.’
Cass turns off the lamp and leads you over to your bed. ‘I just want to give you a quick kiss goodbye.’ He puts your half-filled suitcase on the floor.
He kisses you, hard. You kiss him back, kind of, one eye on your nephew.
He takes his clothes off. He can strip faster than anyone you’ve ever met. He’s leaned you back now. His hands are in your hair, and he’s kissing your neck, more and more insistently.
Your nephew has the gaunt, heroin-chic face of a fussy eater. He peers at you now, wide awake, through the mesh wall of his travel cot.
You grab Cass’s clothes off the floor, run to the bedroom door, and throw them into the corridor as quickly as you can. ‘Get out! Please, please Cass, just go!’
‘Aw, you’re no fun at all, are you?’ He heads for the door, pausing, naked, to say hello to your nephew.


You sidestep a nest of rope and some rusty buckets, and shuffle along a piece of plywood. Jump the final two feet from the fishing boat to the pier, and look around in amazement. Let out a low, ‘Whoa.’ Your college, unbeknownst to you, owns a marine reserve on Catalina Island, which hosts water-activities/marine biology camp each summer. Only students and alumni from your college are invited, and it is, effectively, a camp for adults. To say you were chagrined when your father first presented you with the camp’s pamphlet would be an understatement, but after going ten rounds with him, you finally relented. You were pretty pissed off at having been wrong, but from the pictures, the camp did look pretty cool.

In the green depths below the pier, rays skim across the sand, orange Garibaldi flutter past, and Moray eels slither along the rocky shore. Brushy foothills surround the institute, vaguely etched with hiking trails. Two bison contemplate you from their position atop the hill. Ladders of pink bougainvillea (which your mother always referred to as ‘a weed’, but which you find beautiful and fragrant) climb around the sliding glass door of your dorm, which faces the ocean. You find a welcome basket brimming with sparkling wine and After Eights mints, and a selection of wetsuits, snorkels, and fins in your closet.

Three-quarters of the campers, you quickly discover, are octogenarians with lustrous silver hair and good face lifts, who saunter around in Hawaiian shirts, sipping mai tais and greeting their friends as they arrive by helicopter. Your roommates for the next few weeks are a trio of seventy-one-year-old ex-roommates, all widows, here to celebrate their graduation half a century ago.

At six, the golden oldies pile into a water taxi destined for Avalon, the town on the other side of the island, in search of a seafood restaurant. The camp counsellors and your fellow young campers are left with two options for dinner: cafeteria food (sloppy joes) or a campfire of hotdogs and marshmallows which your counsellor Ro purchased from the island shop. The handful of you vote for a campfire, but decide to kayak until the sun sets.

Ro, who has camped here for the past three summers, shepherds your group through his best discovery: a nook he calls Pirate’s Cave. Shallow water shimmers over the jewelled rock and sand floor, and stalagmites jut out of the water like minarets. A sea lion nurses two pups in a corner of the cave.

Later, warm yourself in front of the campfire that Ro has built in the reserve’s outdoor amphitheatre. The flames, along with the sun’s diminishing rays, cast violet shadows across your new friends’ faces. Finish eating your hotdog and breathe in the sweet charcoal of toasted marshmallows. Ro picks a particularly charred, melted marshmallow from the wire hanger he is using as a skewer, and feeds it to you with chubby, ashy fingers.

‘I’m giving you the option of what we do tonight,’ he tells you. ‘We can either go night snorkelling, or I can bring out the Institute’s telescope.’

‘I don’t know much about either.’ You are starting to get cold. You were hoping he might suggest charades in the amphitheatre, then TV or a puzzle inside.

‘What’s that? Both, then. Even better.’ He gives you a sly smile and pats your thigh. He removes the beanie he’s been wearing all afternoon. He’s stocky, and, you now notice, quite bald. You look away, too noticeably, from his shiny, elongated forehead. He uncrumples the beanie and puts it back on. ‘I’ll go get the telescope.’

After a while, the others wander off to feast on their welcome baskets. Ro asks you to hold back, as he is determined to show you Orion’s Belt. Most of the stars look the same to you, but as you squint through the huge lens, you see a streaking flash. ‘A shooting star!’ you gasp.

Ro removes his glasses to peer through the telescope. ‘No, that’s just a plane.’

Frown. He lowers the telescope until it is level with the horizon, and makes adjustments with the various knobs. ‘Have a look,’ he says. His hand rests on the small of your back as you bend over. Sure enough, the same object now cruises past the airport's blinking control tower. Streams of red tail lights glow in the gridlocked departures throughway. Ro suggests: ‘Let’s try something else. If we just look directly at the sky, maybe the planes won’t distract you.’

He stokes the dying embers of the fire until it gives off some warmth again. He lies flat on the white wooden bemas of the amphitheatre, and motions for you to do the same. ‘Have you always lived in Los Angeles?’ he asks.
‘Long Beach and San Francisco.’
He sighs. ‘Then you’ve never really seen a clear night sky, without smog and light pollution and planes and everything. Out here, the air is so clean. Just relax your eyes and see what’s out there.’

You want to giggle, lying there next to a complete stranger, with dewy wood splintering your back, but you’re also completely at ease. You realise, after your eyes adjust, how much light the stars and quarter moon emit. The fire has nearly died by now, but the final flames paint Ro as a silhouette. He looks rather handsome there- backlit, reposed.
‘I broke up with my girlfriend a few weeks ago,’ he volunteers, apropos of nothing. ‘We used to do this all the time. We’d go camping in Malibu and Joshua Tree, and just lie around and look at the stars.’ He chuckles. ‘Pretty geeky, I guess.’
‘No, it’s alright. I think it’s nice.’
‘The only thing I really hate,’ Ro continues, ‘is not waking up with her there. I took it for granted, but now it’s like I’m really conscious of where I wake up. Does that make sense?'

Before you go inside for the night, Ro leads you down to the pier. ‘We’ll wait until tomorrow night to go snorkelling with the marine biologists. They’ll be able to teach you a lot more than I can. But I want to show you this.’ He holds the campfire skewers together like a bouquet and lies at the edge of the pier, flat on his stomach, and stetches as far as he can. As he cuts the surface of the water, colonies of bioluminescent plankton flicker to life. The moon glows overhead, the stars blink and shimmer, and blue and green mysteries twinkle in the water. A boat sidles up, drenching Ro in its wake, and alumni suddenly stampede the pier, their silver manes illuminated by the night sky.


College resumes: your fourth and final year. Several terms ago, at Eric’s prompting, you adopted an Art History minor. Now the minor, like a puppy, is something you realise you don’t want to take responsibility for. You joke briefly that you should give the minor to a nice family with a farm, or if you are feeling cruel, drown it in a lake. Eventually, you simply abandon it, skipping Californian Art (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2PM) in favour of guzzling $2 margaritas with Ro at a local Mexican restaurant. These are probably the last September weekdays you will ever be unemployed, and you plan to spend them drunk and eating chimichangas.

It is Tuesday, quarter past two. Already you and Ro have curved your collection of margaritas into half a rainbow: yellow, green, pink. A piñata dressed as a birthday cake dangles overhead.

The Indian summer oppresses, with Santa Ana winds gesturing in desert heat of 107 degrees. The pinafored waitress, damp with sweat, smiles apologetically and tells you the obvious: the air conditioner is broken. Her black hair is wound into a topknot, but stray strands have become plastered to her cheeks like a villain’s sideburns. She presents you with complimentary tequila shots and paper fans. The fans are decorated with cartoon peasants, one gathering water from a puddle while the other sows the land. They, too, look crinkled and wilted, perhaps in need of a fan and a margarita.

When the waitress refuses to serve you any more drinks, you and Ro stagger out onto the street. Somehow, somewhere, you have lost a flip flop. The sidewalk is still scalding from the day’s heat. You hop on one foot, and manage to twist and topple into Ro’s arms. He kisses you.
His face is softer than your foam mattress, but something about kissing him is vaguely irksome, like having touched too much manila.

You whip your head around, so Ro ends up with a mouthful of your hair. He wobbles, takes a step backward. ‘So,’ he sighs, ‘that’s how it is. Just because I’m not some idiot rich kid…’

It is your turn to sigh, heavily. ‘Ro, I like you. You know that. It’s just not the right time.’
‘Yeah, no, I know. It’s fine.’
‘Seriously, I like you. I’m just…not myself. I’m like the worst possible version of myself. Everything keeps happening to me. At me.’
From behind his glasses, his eyes look like two black beans. He blinks. ‘I’ve been thinking about you since we met.’
Link arms with him. Lean your head on his shoulder. ‘If we got together now, you’d wake up in a week and realise you’re with a total lunatic. But will you come back and keep me company tonight? My roommate’s away.’

The following morning, yeu are dragged from an alcohol-fuelled sleep. You crack one eye open, past where Ro is spread across Sam’s bed, to the clock. It is 6:30am. You ignore the insistent ringing of Sam's landline, but eventually kick back the duvet and stagger into the lounge to call Sam’s cell. You dial her number, to tell her to check her messages.
Voice mail.
You still feel broken, but too sick to return to bed. Instead, you turn on the TV.
You know you are still drunk, but now you think you might be hallucinating.
Two planes plunge into the World Trade Center, a third leaves the Pentagon smouldering. You rummage for the remote control, only to be confronted with the same images on another channel. A third station shows a close-up of Tower One crumbling like Jenga toppled by an unsteady hand. Flambéed businessmen soar from the hundredth floor, rubble-bound.
Sam’s mom works in the World Trade Center. You’re not sure which Tower, or which floor.
The TV reverts to an overview of the carnage. One, two, three- a master darts player scoring one-eighty. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh- Shaq netting three unlikely baskets.
You glance out the window of your eleventh-floor apartment, which faces LAX airport, ten miles to the south. Ordinarily, planes parade past in a tidy row, ready to touchdown on various runways. You can feel your entire body tensed, clenched, braced for the angry face of a jumbo jet glowering towards you.
The sky is flat and grey.
Below, two palm trees shake in a sharp wind, dropping their fronds into the diving pool.
Summer is over.

Sam crashes back into the apartment an hour later, looking worse than you feel. Her mascara has smeared into panda eyes. Her hair is a wild curly knot. You stare at her mutely, not sure whether or not she has heard the news. Presently, you realise she is not dishevelled solely due to a drunken night, but rather she is hysterical. You clamber to hug her.
‘Is your mom okay?’
Sam snivels. ‘I don’t know. Nobody can get through to her. They just- I don’t know.’
You spend most of the morning and early afternoon not knowing. Instead, Sam takes dozens of phone calls from relatives and high school friends bearing no news. You each squeeze into opposite corners between the toilet and the wall, sitting on the hair-laden floor, which looked none-too-clean when you moved in, and which has not been swept since. You spent most of the morning crying.
Finally, another call. It is Sam’s mom, who is alive. Her lungs are filled with smoke and she has a charred hand, but she is alive.
Sam cries harder than ever, resting her head on the rim of the toilet bowl. ‘Mommy! Mommy, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry I left you there! I….I can’t even come out there! They’ve cancelled all the fucking planes.’ She pounds the rim of the toilet bowl with her fist. ‘Why the fuck did I ever come to California? Mommy, I’ll come. I don’t know how I’ll get there, but I’ll come. I’ll come.’ The scene reminds you of Requiem for a Dream: Sam resembles a junkie making homecoming promises she can’t keep.
But she proves you wrong, and within the hour has calmed herself enough to recruit two friends to drive the 2,800 miles with her. You had ventured across the street to procure Smoothies and Hot Pockets for you both, and when you returned, she had vanished, leaving behind a scrawled message on the white board, and several large hairballs below her pillow.

You drink both Smoothies and eat all of the Hot Pockets yourself. When you greedily open the microwave door for the fourth time, expecting to find your pepperoni buddy waiting to be devoured, you find it has spontaneously combusted, leaving behind only a few splotches of sauce. In many ways, it is scarier and more mysterious than the day’s events.

Before his departure that morning, Ro had made you coffee, which you now drink cold. It tastes and smells inexplicably of cigarettes, but you drink the entire pot. Feel more energised than if you’d swallowed a handful of diet pills, and spend the rest of the afternoon racing between the apartment’s two rooms.

Try to devise a monthly budget. Wonder if it’s normal to spend more money on alcohol than on food.

You change out of your snowman pyjamas, pilfering Sam’s closet for black clothing, until you are satisfied you look sufficiently funereal.

By early evening, you are spent. Attempt studying. You break the spine on your Californian Art book for the first time, and stare blankly at an oil painting of pioneers razing Native Americans off the land. The caption reads, ‘Manifest Destiny’. You’re not sure what it all means, but it seems dark and uninviting. Decide you’d rather watch Barton Fink for your favourite class, ‘Metaphoric Hollywood: Filmic Representations of Los Angeles’.

You and Sam have a policy of always leaving the door unlocked, because neither of you is good at remembering your keys. You are ten minutes into your DVD when the door flies open and Cass bounces in. You have neither seen nor spoken to him since he traumatised your nephew, and you have no idea why he’s turned up now.
‘I thought we said we wouldn’t see each other again,’ you say cautiously.
‘Were we ever really seeing each other?’
‘Well, I have seen you before, and I did tell you not to call me.’
‘I didn’t call. I popped in.’
Sigh. ‘Fine. Welcome.’ Turn back to Barton Fink.
Cass clearly has no interest in watching your DVD with you. He snuggles close, nuzzles at the nape of your neck. Shrug him off, gently. ‘Cass, I… How did you know I live…’
But his mouth eclipses yours, his tongue insistent as a throat culture. Use your elbows now. ‘Get off! Seriously, we’re done here.’
He pecks your cheek, fingers a strand of hair away from your face. ‘Oh, come on. We had such a nice summer together.’ His nose brushes yours, in deliberate little Eskimo kisses.
Remain indecisive as he leans you, pushes you, back. His hands flit up your skirt, peel your panties to one side. Lie as still as death, staring at nothing. He pushes and heaves, says, ‘Come on! Get into it!’ as a lone tear rolls down your cheek. You’re not sure what’s happening; you still have all your clothes on.
When he slaps you a moment later, you’re not sure if you hit him first or not.

Wake up on the couch the next morning, knuckle-deep in an abandoned jar of salsa and with your heart beating too fast. You don’t feel angry, or sad, but rather like you’ve forgotten your mom’s birthday: guilty and stupid.


The next evening, you and your friend Poppy are in Hermosa Beach to watch Ro’s 70s cover band. You are adjacent to LAX airport, and on a normal day, planes would descend radically here, landing gear extended like talons. Instead, you find that you can actually hear the waves. You inhale the salt-smog air, enjoying an LA moment with a semblance of silence. You imagine that in the absence of planes there might be stars, but when you search the sky, you find only a black canvas pockmarked by streetlamps.

You are perched to cross the street when Poppy extends an accusatory finger: ‘Is that where we’re going? T.J. Charlyz-with-a-Z? Are you absolutely kidding me?’

Regard T.J. Charlyz-with-a-Z. It is beach shack-meets-biker bar, though the only thing remotely biker bar about it are the flames stencilled around the placard. The only thing beach hut about the place is its proximity to the ocean and the fake grass that lines the entryway: Hawaiian skirts untied, staple-gunned to the door frame.

Inside, you are greeted with more painted flames, and by Ro’s other friends, the ones that go to a less expensive college than you do.

While the band sets up, Poppy buys you a watery pitcher of Coors Light and settles you at a barstool. Ro and Chase wind guitar leads past you.
‘So,’ Poppy begins, raising her glass, ‘how’s tricks?’
You haven’t yet opened your mouth when she shows you the palm of her hand. ‘And before you even start, don’t you dare talk to me about yesterday. There are no words. I don’t want to dissect it. Just leave it.’
‘Okay, okay. I wasn’t going to.’ You whisper, ‘Well…Ro and I finally kissed, kind of.’
Poppy brightens. ‘Did you? Goody.’ She claps her hands quietly. ‘So are you finished with that jerk?’
‘I think so. I’ve been cuckolded.’
‘Calm down, Chaucer. Stick to words you know the meaning of. “Cuckolded” doesn’t mean he stuck his cock in you again. Have you seen him again recently? I thought you broke up with him over the summer.’
You hedge. She can see through you.

She gives you a matronly look, lips pursed. From the way she is glaring at you, you can sense that this will be an important conversation, a pinnacle. Suddenly all of your small fidgets and movements seem exaggerated, meaningful.
She continues to give you her guarded stare, then says simply, ‘You don’t like him.’
You shift your weight, shrug. ‘I know. So?’
‘He doesn’t like you, either. He’s mean to you.’
At this, you chew away a bit of dry skin on your lip. Of course you were aware of this fact in an abstract way. When you hear the words aloud, though, it seems to suddenly become a more complicated concept, and to take up more physical space in your chest. You must look flummoxed, because Poppy reaches across the table and touches, not you, but your beer cup, tenderly. She strokes the beer cup, wiping away its condensation, reassuring it.
‘Are you okay?’ she asks.
‘I am, actually. I’m…really calm.’
There is a pregnant pause.

Break the silence with your standard joke, the line you always use between you as a stalemate: ‘Are you just saying this because you don’t have a dad?’
Normally she plays the game, laughs, and changes the subject. ‘No, Carlie, I’m saying this because Cass is a creep. You haven’t looked healthy in a really long time. I’m just worried.’
‘So what, everyone else is allowed to go out and have casual sex and I’m not?’
‘Carlie, I’ve never known you to do anything casually. And no offence, but you will never be the one in control of that relationship.’

Stare at your hands through the beer pitcher. Your fingers look like urine-coloured sausages. ‘Is this what it’s always going to be like?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. Like, am I always going to be there to get dumped, or fucked, or to resist the guy who’s actually nice?’
She shrugs. Her wide shoulders momentarily disappear into her brassy blonde hair. ‘Maybe. But I’m a cynic.’


After the band’s set, you drive Poppy back to your dad’s house, for late night grilled cheese sandwiches.
The sky is an eight-ball, oily black with a full moon, but as you pull into your dad’s neighbourhood, you can see the faintest outline of constellations in the planeless night.
‘Nightswimming’ comes on the radio. REM is not a band you would ever pledge allegiance to, but their songs are sleepy and familiar. You hum along, quietly, so Poppy won’t yell at you for singing in the car.

Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse.
Still, it's so much clearer.
I forgot my shirt at the water's edge.
The moon is low tonight.

You remember your first night swim of the summer. You floated on the surface of the water, waving your arms into the dark depths, to stir the glimmering phosphorescence. You repeatedly tried to scoop the emerald and jade flecks into your mask, to cradle a handful of it, until one of the marine biologists explained it was only an illusion. Still, you tried futilely, for nearly an hour, to capture its essence, until you were nearly hypothermic, even in your wetsuit.
As you eased yourself out of the water and peeled back your foggy mask, Ro was waiting at the end of the pier- just there, out of reach, giving you space, waiting to hand you a dry towel.

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 17:10 on 04 October 2005  Report this post
Hi jenn,

I've read again from the beginning and enjoyed it even more than the first time. Your writing feels confident and creative. There are far too many good things here to begin picking them out, but there's some great characterization - Dad and Cass are almost too good not to meet again in something of yours. This does feel more like a novel than a short story as one reads on - the many minor characters, the varied happenings - but comps sometimes have a limit of 8,000 words for a short story and I can honestly say that I loved Carlie's journey in this one. Her felings for Ro at the end kept me thinking about the story after I'd finished reading - this will be a relationship based on trust and loyalty, values in contrast to Cass', but there was still a small niggle of doubt in my mind that perhaps you hadn't shown us quite enough of Ro's potential.

Thinking about pruning this to your 5.000 word limit troubles me somewhat. I feel that it could be done, go back to read a possible section and then shake my head. I did wonder about the whole 9/11 scenario, but it is performing a function, pointing up the fragilty of life and bringing that home to Carlie after all her trauma when she broke up with Eric. So - without reading again a few times - I can't see clearly enough at the moment to suggest where (if anywhere) to prune. I do like the imperative, but felt that it was strained in one or places.

I wondered about contractions - sometimes the writing seemed slightly formal because you'd used 'I am ' or 'it is' rather than 'I'm' or 'it's'.

There are one or two places that could be tightened too. Notes below.

I don't think you need 'the cat' in para 1 - 'Knitty Whiskers' does the job for you, and you've 'your cat' in the first line anyway.

The night Eric broke up with you three nights ago... A bit awkward - how about ...Three nights ago when Eric broke up with you...

...for awhile... (for a while)

Pookie: the name of Garfield's teddy bear, and your nickname... I was suprised that this didn't appear again - maybe mention it's her dad's nickname for her.

Now, on the third day... and ...By today... I wasn't sure when reading ...By today... whether it was still the third day or not. If it is you could just cut ...By today... completely and begin at ...Your dad's patience...

There's a repetition of 'fist' in that para, ...of his fist... could easily go.

I don't think you need ...(as an afterthought, you would guess)... - it's a bit untidy.

N*SYNC lost me I'm afraid. Is it a US thing?

Maybe a semi-colon after ... Every night you follow the same pattern... instead of a comma.

I'll look around until I find something (for you). Neater sounding without the words in brackets.

She thinks you look fabulous thin... ?

Your friends all love your devoted daddy, (who in retirement acts as your sometime PA.)

There's a rep of 'back' in the para beginning The party is in full swing... - you could just cut the second one.

You are heavily made up (tonight).

Repetition of 'hand' in the para beginning ...Through some sleight of hand...

Cass takes off his cap to reveal vaguely auburn and hazel eyes... ?

When he kisses you a moment later, spill your drinks on the hippies. I didn't feel the imperative was working here. I wanted a 'you' in there. The whole para is more conversational than some others and it seems to jar. I wanted to cut this para from ...if you exclude... to ...school... as that part dilutes the impact of ...He's only the third persom you've ever kissed...

I felt that 'akimbo' was the wrong word for her hair, as it's (according to Penguin) specifically the word for having your hands on your hips.

...meals or movies (between you)...

In the same para the imperative seemed strained at ...Find yourself... and Each time...

...but there is a lot of ice cream... I found myself wondering where it had come from - did Cass bring it with him or was it in the freezer? It feels odd.

Ro... followed by ...rows your group... felt strange - I wasn't sure if it was deliberate.

...'I don't know much about either (one)'...

...brethren... doesn't seem quite right.

The fire has all but died but now, but... ?

'...(and this is what we'd do)- just lie around and look at the stars...' (the words in brackets feel like repetition from earlier on).

...and reaches as far over (the edge) as he can... (repetition - easily cut.)

Loved the fan/marguerita/peasant observation!

In the para beginning ...It is your turn to sigh..., ...since I met you... could be smoothed by ...since we met... avoiding the rep. of 'you'.

Repeats of 'phone' in the para beginning ...The following morning... I wondered if you could be less specific about what woke her - it becomes obvious later.

In the para beginning ...Sam crashes back... I wasn't sure of the use of the imperative at ...Stare at her mutely... and the following sentence doesn't seem to describe the situation believably - it's not strong enough for the taking 'turns vomiting and sobbing'.

...leaving behind a scrawled message (to you) on the white board...

I wondered how much time had passed at ...Before his departure... - if it was still the same day. I had to stop reading and go back.

...his tongue insistent as a throat culture... Great simile!

When Poppy appeared I wondered if we'd met her before, questioned the wisdom of introducing anyone else this late in the story. I realize you can't use Sam because of her Mum, but maybe if Poppy had made a brief appearance earlier she wouldn't be such a surprise.

I think 'faux' is a bit overused in this!

...your dad's (residential) neighbourhood...

In the last para the words 'first night swim' seem a contradiction to ...Ro would always be waiting...

Jenn, I've been very picky with this, and it's a long piece, thus the long comments box. Don't imagine for a moment that your writing's anything but a joy to read.

Sorry I can't quite get my head around cutting it any more - I liked it too much to suggest chopping sections out.



I just knew that would happen (italics) when the Preview didn't work...



Have I fixed it? Just testing...


...she thinks you look fabulous thin... - now I see the sense of it - sorry, my mistake!

jenn22580 at 13:59 on 05 October 2005  Report this post
Hi Nell,

Thank you so much for doing such a great job editing, and for such positive feedback! I have just tried twice to use your suggestions and correct all of my sloppy mistakes, but the 'Owner Edit' isn't cooperating at the moment.

I had a feeling I could't get away with 'akimbo', but I thought I'd try anyway-I love the sound of it.

This is the stage of the game that I usually get lazy and develop a case of the 'What's the Point of this Story Existing's. I'm not very good at redrafting, but I really want to clean this piece up until it is submittable.

The reason I am so hell-bent on a 5,000-word limit is that seems to be the limit for a lot of literary mags I am interested in submitting to. (And, more importantly, it is the limit imposed for my MA Creative Writing portfolio- I don't want to get a big CANNOT FOLLOW DIRECTIONS slapped across my application.)

Do you have any suggestions about how/where to introduce Poppy? I did consider this- can I be lazy and just have Dad mention her? I also thought about revising 9/11- does Sam's mom really need to be involved? Does any of it need to happen? I really want planelessness, Sam away from the flat, and Carlie alone, but I'm sure there is a less-contrived/more creative way of doing this. Do Sam and Poppy seem too much like the same person? I want their advice to seem contradictory, but don't know if this is developed enough. I also know the moment will come that I have to cut the Hot Pockets reference (they don't exist here to my knowledge- does anyone know what they are?), but I kind of enjoy the fact that Carlie gives 9/11 and the disappearance of a microwave snack equal weight.

I'm glad you found Cass a developed character. I was worried he was too hazy/stereotypical. I posed that question to my boyfriend and his response was, 'No, he's just like that character on Hollyoaks.' Never a good sign!

N*SYNC, by the way, is the late-90s/early-00s boy band from which Justin Timberlake emerged.

Another question: Too many pop-culture references? I have a tendency to use lots of them, and I have been told they are cheap and easy.

I will copy edit (hopefully) when I get home tonight.

Thanks again- I know it is a long piece to read!

Nell at 16:47 on 05 October 2005  Report this post
Hi again jenn. Contemporary pop-culture refs do tend to date work and give it a limited shelf-life, but in any case I think one has to ration them severely unless that's what the story is about. I almost suggested that you cut that section altogether but then wondered whether that was just because it wasn't my era and you lost me a bit there. The 9/11 question is a difficult one, as it places the whole story in a particular time and location (and the whole story is very rich with that feeling of time and place) and points up the fragilty of life etc. If you cut that section then you wouldn't need Poppy as Sam could take over her role. The only way you'll know if it would work is to try it, but save a copy of this draft first!

I didn't feel as if Poppy and Sam were too similar, and you could still have 9/11 without having Sam's mom involved or all the trauma in the para that begins ...Sam crashes... The quiet voice of the para beginning ...The following morning... is effective as no one who ever saw those images on TV will ever forget how they felt then.

Dad could certainly mention Poppy early on - maybe as a long-time friend to have a night out with. But the only way you'll know what works best for the 5,000 word count is to try a series of different edits. Go for it!


lang-lad at 21:27 on 07 October 2005  Report this post
It's a matter of taste and you'll have to go with Nell's excellent feedback on this one.

A section I really liked was the para beginning "Grow rakishly thin .... " but as a general response - with the best will in the world - although I wanted to return the favour of doing a good appraisal for you, I could only get into it in fits and starts.

I don't think it's a fault as such. There are some excellent details and insights. For me, however, and I stress this is just the way it struck me, sections of it read like a synopsis and notes fro a story rather than a story itself. I'm not suggesting you change anything. I'm just trying to explain why, for me, the style didn't engage me.

As I say, just a matter of taste in this instance and therefore as Nell's opinion is a good one, trust that as nearer to representative of the readers for whom you're writing.

I have one language point to mention - the phrase "no friend to sunlight" seemed odd, as if what you meant was a conflation of "stranger to sunlight" or "no lover of sunlight" but being a friend 'to' sunlight rang oddly. Because you use some words oddly elsewhere, like simper and akimbo, it makes on wonder if you really are being deliberate - which, when it works, is no bad thing at all.

So, Jenn, I'm terribly sorry I can't be more constructive. I didn't want just to ignore it and say nothing. What I will do is promise you I'll have another go at it and if a switch goes click in my head and I can get into it I'll say so. Meanwhile, you're in good hands with Nell's response and hopefully some of the others too. I hope you place it and that it finds its audience.

I was in several minds about how productive it would be to comment this way as it doesn't help you much, except to confirm what you already know, that this style is not everybody's cup of tea. Others clearly will find it perfectly to their taste and it's no reflection on your abilities as a writer if it's not mine.

Looking forward to reading other pieces of yours soon I hope.
Best wishes,

davedave at 14:11 on 11 October 2005  Report this post

I agree with Nell - you're a confident and good writer. On a sentence level, Nell has it covered, but I will add that I found it easy-to-read, which is a compliment - being easy-to-read isn't easy to achieve.

Like Eliza, though, I wasn't massively excited by the story. I'm not a short-story writer but it didn't feel 'tight', which is a rubbish word, but I can't put my finger on exactly what the problem is. I think I mean that the narrative didn't really pull me along. I think it could be a lot shorter but, like Nell, I've no idea about what to leave out. Maybe concentrating on two or three 'scenes' and hinting at other bits in those scenes.

What I think I'm saying is that this story demonstrates your obvious ability without fully realising it.

There is lots good here, though. The MC was believable and interesting. I thought that the 9/11 paragraph was the best writing in the whole thing. There were great funny moments, like the 'urine-coloured sausages', the 'minor' riff, the food/alcohol gag.

Alright - I'm genuinely looking forward your next thing.


jenn22580 at 19:34 on 11 October 2005  Report this post
Hi Eliza and Dave,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my story and provide feedback.

Eliza, please don't feel like you have to hold back. If something doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. It is always important (if not enjoyable) to hear negative feedback as well as positive- It helps me remember that writing is always a process, and redrafting, trying out different styles, etc. are as important as completing the first draft.

Dave, Thanks for your generally encouraging comments on my writing. This is the first new piece I produced in over three years, so it is a relief to have it done, even if it isn't an immediate masterpiece!

Onto my next piece, then...

All Best Wishes,

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