One Tuesday, Susan locked the dog in the basement. She thought it was time she did something for herself. She went down twice a day with his leash or some dog treats, only to disappear and not come back. In this way and others she teased him horribly and then she left him down there for a week. The dog, Mortimer, a lab-collie mix, was alternately terrified, almost hysterical, and catatonic. She would hear him howling, leaping at the stairwell then suddenly all would go quiet. She would fear he was dead. She would pace about upstairs, put on loud music, anything to get him to react. But as soon as he started up again, she would curse him. Stupid dog! Stupid fucking Mortimer! Why had her parents left her here alone with him? How long, exactly, until he starved?
Susan loved dogs. She loved every one of God’s creatures. She was a cheerleader as well as a Christian, plus on the Honour Roll at school. Yet after Tuesday she also knew she was evil. Or else why would she be mean, why would she be doing this? Perhaps this meant she no longer had to wear braces, could rip them out of her mouth and simply roar. There were girls at school who snorted cocaine, others who already had babies, and all because of low self-esteem. Personally, Susan hated her kneecaps, which weren’t really kneecaps at all but folds of flesh that hung down and touched each other and made her walk funny. She also hated her hair, the colour of weak tea and so oily it often appeared sodden, flakes of dandruff kebabbed along its shafts.
She did not hate her boyfriend, Michael. She craved him. But she knew he did not respect her the way he should. For example, he criticized her clothing and whenever she reached for a pretzel grabbed her hand. That’s enough. You’ve had too many already. They had sex standing up in his parents’ kitchen while his parents were out in their car making love also. All four felt closer to God that way. But despite the fact that his parents were both athletes, Michael fucked with little finesse. Yet after they had finished, he and Susan prayed together and this she found intensely moving. The linoleum was sticky and cold. Michael’s pink acne ran right down his neck and across his back. As they knelt together, Susan had to restrain herself from picking at it, from pressing each little volcano between her fingers, for fear something horrible might erupt.
On the fourth day of his captivity, Mortimer escaped. He barreled up the stairs, knocking her over, made straight for the plastic bin of dog food and gorged himself until he threw up. Whenever she came near he whined, as if he could see the devil on her shoulder, grinning and twirling its blood-red, horned batons. While Mortimer leapt about begging for exercise Susan attempted to achieve enlightenment. She sat on the wobbly IKEA chair rocking backward and forward, backward and forward, repeating the word “home” until it said womb. And when her parents got home from Hawaii they glowed with affection, not for her but for themselves, although they were full up enough for some to spill over. Their suitcases on wheels were covered in stickers. They stumbled around as if suffering from hangovers. They had brought her a lei.
Six months later, Susan left home. She had yet to complete high school. She knew she would live to regret this but felt something had gone missing, something non-negotiable: her body, herself. She got rid of her faith, her cheerleader costume and Michael. She dyed her hair turquoise, moved to a hostel, gave her name as Jinx and her hometown as Oshawa, decided she would like to move to LA. One day she made it as far as the Greyhound depot where she met a man called Anton, with a weird accent. Anton-with-a-weird-accent said he was a refugee. He was skinny and tall and his hair stood out, a wild red burning bush. His voice seemed to emanate from it. She believed that voice, became lulled by it, and within a couple of hours had moved into the condemned walkup where he lived.
At first he told her there were gangsters after him. That was why she had to do as he said. She was a middle-class girl from the suburbs who did not understand how to behave and anything she did or said could be suspect. Anton stole food and clothing and lived on rice wine, anything fermented he could get his hands on, yet claimed he was a poet. He wrote in tiny, unlined spiral-bound notebooks using a leaky Hello Kitty ballpoint, line after line of poetry she could not read. One day she stole a book of her own and began writing lists in it, countries she would like to run cafes in, brands of salad dressing she missed and yearned for, but Anton found it and ripped it up, said he was the writer, she should not forget that. Shortly after, he began locking her in, taking the key to the door and disappearing for hours. When he came home he would ask what she had been up to. Had she turned on the lights? Had she peed? Had she masturbated? Meanwhile his body, its sinew-wrapped bones became the only diagram she could relate to. She lived for his touch, his hollowed-out eyes, the slap and suck of their flesh cleaving together. So what if he bruised her? He always apologized. She did not know any word for this but bliss.
No, it didn’t need repeating, although he said it often, I love you, I love you, as if he himself could barely believe it, the feelings he had for this (according to the mirror) sulky adolescent whose dye job was growing out and whose hip bones were showing, poking their noses out and into his business. Yet one day, two months later, Susan moved out. Anton, fatally, had left the door unlocked. Observing this, Susan rinsed her mouth out with cold, rancid coffee, laced up her Doc’s and casually sauntered forward. As she paused in the doorway Anton leapt up from the couch. Where the fuck you going? Susan could not think of a destination. He grabbed her collar. Go, said Anton, releasing his grip. She fell backwards. Another inch and she would have slid down the stairs. Go, bitch. She knew he must be hurting. God knew what terrible crimes he had witnessed or even been party to back in his homeland. She, on the other hand, was a blank slate. What had she ever done except leave home? He loved her, he said. He did not want to hurt her. No one was going to accuse him of that. Back where he came from pride was important. And he knew one day she would marry and have children and that her future husband would not be him. He just wanted to help her. Was she safe? She looked at the marks on her hands and around her ankles where Anton had them with rope and still wasn’t sure.
Go, he said. It was easy to leave. Ridiculously easy, all things considered. She did not have luggage. She just had her clothes. Anton had said that was all he had. She pictures him, an orange cloud, receding slowly up towards the snowline before descending down into neutral territory. His notebook, his coat. As she herself limped down, down, Anton stayed put, staring into the chasm of the stairwell.
When she arrived home after walking all night her mother slammed the door in her face then opened it again quickly. Come inside, she hissed, before anyone sees you. Just then a neighbour drove past in a silver minivan, almost swerved right off the road.
All that day, her parents circled her warily, as if she were a werewolf, about to grow fur. We’ve been worried sick. We’ve been praying hard. The whole congregation has. Her mother hugged her. Wow, you smell awful. What have you been eating? We kept your room. It feels like years. You could go back to school in September. Look at your hair. Have you had unsafe sex? I knew Jesus was listening to me, I knew it. Whenever Susan went outside she experienced reverse celebrity, like a sex offender or a suspected terrorist. She became convinced she could hear other people’s thoughts. Oh my God, look at that child! Is she on crystal meth? How ungrateful! In the mall people backed away as if they could smell Anton on her fingers.
That summer was hot. She agreed to see the counselor her parents found and ended up on various legal drugs, psychoactive substances she’d taken on the street but now was having paid for by her parents. The shrink was young and handsome. He liked to touch her shoulder when she cried.
A few weeks later, Mortimer was run over by a car. Her parents buried him in the back yard. One night she tried to dig him up, stood there in the warm air in her nightshirt stamping on a wooden shovel but to no avail. The ground had gone hard. Mortimer might as well not have existed. The next day Michael her ex came over to visit. He informed her she was paranoid schizophrenic, always had been and probably always would be. He was standing on top of Mortimer’s grave in his shirtsleeves, off to med school in the fall and seeing another cheerleader named Sara. Michael said there were some good drugs. Susan said she was already on them. He wished her a normal life, even shaking her hand before walking back to his brand new Volvo, a graduating present from his parents who were heading out on mission in their Winnebago. Michael looked very young behind the wheel. Susan wondered if Sara popped his acne. Later, drunk on vodka, she decided to kill him. Meanwhile she would act really nice.
Susan got a job in a café making sandwiches. What kind of bread would you like? Mayo or mustard? Or both? Each perfect triangle stuffed with promise. She hated it when her customers took their first bites. She would go back to school and eventually graduate, take courses in ECE. Perhaps she would travel. But then, leaning forward one day at an intersection, she almost tipped over into the road along which a truck was barreling and felt a hand grab her and pull her back. Don’t do it. I wasn’t trying, she muttered. I’m in a hurry. The man had no hair. Dressed all in black, wearing black canvas boots, his white head was criss-crossed with thorns, roses, vines. On closer inspection he was also old; forty at least. Are you on something? Can I talk you down? They ended up in a smelly second-hand bookstore where Susan bought a copy of Anna Karenina. They then went to a deli, where they tasted samples of paper-thin sliced German salami. Held up to the light, it was flesh, stained glass.
Con was an ex, an ex-con, with a son and a record. His body was entirely covered in tattoos. Susan found them disorienting yet inviting, never quite sure which limb, which joint was which. He drove her around on his Harley and they went camping, waking up in bad moods with gritty mouths only to unzip a flap and walk into paradise. Once Susan took a shit and stood up into mist so thick she was lost, just she and her feces surrounded by white and it was Con’s voice that pulled her back into air again, stepping slowly over rocks and ground squirrels into the clearing where her pack sat, patient and solid, like a part of her she’d abandoned rather cruelly and now regarded with unconditional joy.
Con proposed. Susan guffawed. I’m practically the same age as your son. But she moved in anyway. Anything seemed better than living with her parents. She told them she was moving in with a girlfriend. Surprisingly they didn’t react. Perhaps they were disappointed. They always seemed to feel that way. She knew they’d been disappointed when they went to Hawaii. The beaches weren’t white enough, the sun not hot enough. The contentment they had radiated was merely relief. As she walked out the door, Susan wished for a moment they would stop her. Perhaps if they tried to restrain her she would fall in love with them: it could happen, technically, it wasn’t too late. All kinds of people adored their parents, especially older people who had left home. Meanwhile Con was fun, a reasonable stand-in. He meditated daily, a habit he had acquired in the slammer and soon she found herself joining in. Sitting beside him in silence was maddening, yet she could not help it. His knees clicked as he sat down on his zafu. His nose whistled, his breath slowed and she wondered what the hell he could possibly be thinking about. A siren rose and fell, turned into a fly which morphed into her mother, then Ally McBeal. Her head jerked. A pig snorted. Was that her? Opening her eyes she regarded Con’s clock, the hands on which appeared to be going backwards. Who was this man who had grabbed her and called her to him? He was an ex-punk. He played guitar. He educated youth about sobriety, bought groceries for little old ladies and in between worked out at the gym. And now she was with him, he seemed so young, like a man whose body ages and mind regresses, his enthusiasm for life borderline ludicrous. He saw his son twice a week and lived in a tiny apartment filled with action figures. Next to him she felt very old, her months with Anton a fascinating secret she would not share even if he tortured her, which clearly he wouldn’t. He had other things on his mind.
Yet she did love his head. It was prickly, flabby and she could pinch a yellowing handful between her fingers, a handful that might contain roses or thorns. He shaved it every other day and when he did she liked to dab on the shaving cream, scrape the razor over its stubble and watch his blood rushing up to the surface and this reminded her for some reason of Anton, who never shaved, never grew facial hair, only worshipped the great cloud that sat on his head. One day she took Con down there, to the walkup where she had lived, pretended she was lost. They were on their way to a movie downtown and on an impulse she had suggested they walk. Off the bike, he seemed uncertain. She led, walking briskly between junkies, considered running, seeing how fast he could go, but in the end needed him behind her, a tall, striped presence like a beacon. Anton was nowhere. The walkup had yellow tickertape around it and police strode up and down looking purposeful. There had been a crime: that much was certain, but what had been done to whom no one knew.