Grace, August (an excerpt from I Have to Tell You)

by Victoria Hetherington

Victoria Hetherington is the author of I Have To Tell You (0s&1s, 2014), the full-length novel from which this excerpt has been taken. Her work has appeared in publications like Joyland, This Magazine, Broken Pencil, and This Recording. She lives in Toronto, and you can find her here.

She ashes her seventh cigarette into the empty, sweating ice cream container, then writes:

Well here I am, & it’s over before it

But stops, because well, wait: it did start, too much & all at once. She pauses.

I won’t write specific things he told me in first blissful few wks bc I’m embarrassed for him even just remembering them.

Speaking of incongruence: beautiful days like this are nightmares when you’re sad; when you’re sadder, they’re experienced as if through a screen, affectless & no depth, like you’re alone in a huge movie theatre watching it all

But, of course, she could have cared for longer; she could have lost far more.

the last morning we fell into silence & he sat in bed with his arm around me, staring straight ahead. I knew I’d been shut out

When he called to cancel a date for the 3rd day in a row he said, with just a slight edge, that he was very busy & there was nothing he could do about it

I wanted to cry & felt silly for it—but really I’d just learned everything, & over the next few days, this knowledge would ooze into my conscious mind—slow enough to be manageable, quick enough to be merciful

I need to write it all down before I turn him into a monster. I need to record it & then forget most of it. Next time I turn to this page, I’ll read like it happened to someone else


She senses that loss is best recounted simply; nostalgia hangs heaviest over, and embroiders most elaborately, recently vanished relationships, objects and life-eras. But sometimes, putting traumatic events into narrative—laying them out, choosing and excluding certain details, examining as she goes—are crucial for regaining her sense of self and personal agency. So while this needs to be recorded, it will be kept as brief as possible.

She meets him at a Next Train Outta Town show; this band has seven members and two of them are gorgeous female fiddlers and one of them, a skinny young man, only plays the tambourine. She drinks cider and feels her gut bloat out between her skirt and her shirt; sweat gathers on her exposed stomach. She feels one man’s eyes fix on her; he approaches her and speaks like they’ve been talking all night. He’s interviewing the band, he says, feeding her cigarettes until they make her sick; still she lights one after another, thrilled at the casual way he hands her his pack. “Take your time with it,” he, rather cryptically, instructs as she coughs, and at the end of the night he tells her she’s charming. “Have dinner with me,” he advises.

On her way to the date she feels caffeinated, unbearably alive, and terrified. She becomes so flustered around him; she qualifies her opinions with I guesses and but anyways. For most of the night he gazes at her hungrily, his chin propped in his right hand. Alone, she reads all his interviews and takes notes; she thinks, maybe in a month I’ll be smart enough for him. Maybe next time she’ll slip this or that into conversation. She thinks, soon I’ll be comfortable with him, but it just seems to get worse. He tells her charming stories about his childhood, which calms her. She thinks, my real adult life can start now.

“All his life, he remembers, he’s ached to protect women from moments like these.”

And really, she realizes as she leaves his apartment one morning, that’s unfair to him; she needs to find other people as cool as he is so he’s not the only really cool person in her life, and read books as profound as he does, and predict cultural trends like he does, and find the kinds of bars and restaurants and coffee shops he discovers. She is strung alongside a breathtakingly public person, a persona people discuss—he casually mentions—at length, a literary life in progress; she is excited to discover the private him, the childhood him, the secret, just-before-sleep him, the him she’ll access when she, finally, can relax around him—when she’s successfully secured his affection and attention, that is. But chasing both with such fervour, even as he indicates that she’s making progress, has asymptotic effects.

One night, over wine, she tells him all about growing up poor, about her eating disorder, her escalating drug use, her relationship with Sherene. He is patient and kind, he listens carefully. Flushed with wine she feels interesting and strong, a survivor-woman. She feels elevated, like he’s gazing up at her through a window; he is grateful for her confessions, he urges her for more. He carries her to his big, beautiful bed to make love to her and halfway through he tells her he loves her.

Sherene is dubious.

“He told you he loves you? After two weeks? Isn’t he supposed to be really smart? He doesn’t mean it.”

“Why can’t you be happy for me?”

“Because at best, it means he wants to dominate you completely—the you you, you understand, I don’t mean just sexually—and furthermore, he wants to take all the shortcuts to do it. A man saying ‘I love you’ when he doesn’t really mean it is cruel. It’s a totalizing and consuming statement, and women don’t have much subjectivity in our society as it is.”

“What should men say, then?”

“Well, language is everything, so feminist philosophy suggests a less direct way of speaking—like saying ‘I love to you’ instead as a way of symbolizing respect. The ‘to’ is a verbal barrier against appropriating or subjugating you.”

That, Grace thinks, is the problem with feminist theorists: they require the patriarchy to resist against; they assume women’s minds are delicate and susceptible; they silo them away and preach to them in private. Later she’d realize that she’d started thinking like him already, and it only took two weeks.

 

And then he cools off. He texts and calls less frequently, then he disappears for a week, and then another week. When at last he agrees to meet for lunch, she senses it’s the final time she’ll see him, and she is humiliated and arrives late. When she slides into her chair he’s reading on his iPad and smiles at her indulgently, and she sees he’s folded his sunglasses by his wine glass and she is overwhelmed by desire. So she digs her nails into her thighs, she grinds her teeth and doesn’t make much eye contact, and prompts him into saying things she’ll hate to stymie.

“God, I wish I could get the cheeseburger.”

“Get whatever you want, sweetheart.”

“I mean, I can’t.”

“You don’t diet, do you? You don’t need to.”

“Most young women I’ve met, they want to be skinnier. They want this a great deal. And I have no idea where we all get that idea from.”

He sighs and lowers his menu. “Claiming that the patriarchy controls you that much is doing yourself a tremendous disservice, and I say this as a staunch feminist, Grace. You’re much more strong-minded than that.”

“Nobody is. I’m sure you favour a certain kind of woman, don’t you?”

He takes a deep, life-loving sip from his wineglass; he decides to indulge her. “Well, if I’m being honest, sure. There’s something so glamorous about self-destructive beauties, you know? I love women like Marilyn Monroe, like Edie Sedgwick, I can’t help it. They’re actually terribly brave. Dancing around playing tricks on everyone, never quite outrunning their own tragedy.”

“You think that’s bravery or glamour? Have you seen Edie in Ciao! Manhattan? Her last film, she overdosed just as it entered post-production—dead at 28. After years of guzzling drugs as if they were—she gurgles this during the film—strawberries, packing her purse dense with pills in the morning—spilling them out in the street sometimes—then spending whole days high in the Factory, running her hands over mirrors and getting filmed flopping around in black tights and slowly putting on lipstick for an I guess arty film that was canned halfway through 1967—after all this she’s nearly brain-dead, she’s gasping like a fish on the sidewalk, she’s in and out of hospitals and on Quaaludes and tranquilizers and whiskey and all kinds of things just to get out of bed, and these two dude filmmakers decide to wring one last performance from her before her almost certain death—she can barely speak at this point—under the guise of finishing that film Warhol started in her prime.”

“The film where she’s high and putting on makeup, talking about parties?”

“Well, that’s what they tell her. But really … well. And so the premise is, this mealy-mouthed retard—”

“That’s really not an appropriate term—”

“Oh fine, this yokel kid, this dewy-skinned backwoods kid named Butch, this downy well-meaning idiot with such a big gap between his eyes he’s uncannily goat-like—he rescues a bedraggled beautiful hitchhiker with enormous fake tits who promptly passes out and folds over his arm like a jacket—”

“What year was this? I didn’t think they did boob jobs back then.”

“1971 and yes they did, but evidently not well—she promptly passes out and he reads an, I guess, address tag on her necklace and carries her home, Edie dangling majestically and playing dead with perfect aplomb, those big stiff tits on display and her legs barely showing through her jeans she’s so thin. He takes her back to this grody swimming pool, long-drained, where she lives now with enormous posters from her modelling days tacked up everywhere—you know, the iconic Andy Warhol colours, her huge eyes in red and yellow, that sort of thing—and there’s a mattress that maybe wasn’t always grey, and she is still so achingly beautiful, and when she talks—when she talks it’s just so sad.”

“What does she say?”

“Oh, heartbreaking stuff she withstood from her childhood, and then she recounts entire relationships spent high on speed and heroin with men she never knew sober. And it’s with great effort that she slurs out a couple of sentences at a time, she talks like she’s speaking with a mouthful of marbles, and she’s shot in profile and eyeing the camera now and then furtively, as if she’s afraid. And they make her dance.”

“They?”

“The two men, the filmmakers. It isn’t Edie’s idea, it’s clear that she needs to be in a hospital at this point and it’s amazing she’s moving unassisted, she jerks and wriggles horribly, and kicks off those jeans, smoking all the while. She’s wearing knee socks and those breasts just look bolted onto her chest, and her pink underwear hangs loose on her. And in this maudlin 1970s voiceover Butch reflects that she probably dances like that for every man who comes by—gawking, presumably, by the grody edge of her swimming pool fort—and he reflects that he wouldn’t touch her.

“And they cut to the black-and-white footage from just three years before; Edie bristling with white fur and long black earrings, which glitter and flap as Paul America drives her through New York at night, Edie looking all around her with her eyes impossibly large and her dimples flashing and passersby just enchanted, and the nostalgia of the Velvet Underground songs they play working like blunt instruments: it’s like you never understood the tinny, late-afternoon melancholy of those songs until now, until you see Edie near-comatose in the cynical colours of the decade to come, the ’60s all drained out like her pool. Though Lou Reed was never sad for Edie so much as he was sad for himself, I think.”

“That’s interesting. And, so?”

“So? So you want a woman who gets high and dances for men all her life? Infantilized and fed hard drugs, almost murdered and discarded, and then sought again to be dragged to death? Don’t even the worst people deserve dignity near death, and who would deny someone’s humanity as those men did, making her dance like that, ill as she was? She died a month later, but it might as well have been the next morning. It might as well have been months before. So what’s glamorous or brave about Edie? What kind of feminist are you?”

“She’s not fascinating? You know more about her than I do.”

She sniffs. “We’re all sixteen once, aren’t we? You sound like you never grew out of your Beat phase. You look like it, too.”

He leans in, close enough that she smells him and remembers his room, the tactile experience of his body, and feels faint, watching him think before he speaks. “You’re jumping at shadows, Grace. You’re so angry. You’re a kind-hearted woman; this doesn’t suit you. Who are you really angry with? What did I do to you?”

“I’m not angry,” she says. “I’m bored. You’re boring me.”

He counts out a couple of bills and slides them beneath his wineglass. He sighs.

“I think you’d do anything to look like Edie, to command men like she did. I think you’d give 20 years off your life for it, and I can’t blame you a bit.”

He stands. He leaves.

Heartbreak is like a virus in that when you find a way to control, or regulate it—with a substance or otherwise—it mutates; the ugliest, most destructive thing, and a living thing is what’s worse. Heartbreak fucking breathes. For weeks she walks around the city hating women in the specific way she thinks he does, and short men and writers of both genders and Last Train Outta Town and music interviews/artsy-looking magazines in general/posters featuring guitars and his neighbourhood and even smoking.

Sherene gets her drunk and they Google Image search him, studying each picture they find. Sherene says: “Look at him in this one. He’s totally looking at her tits. Right? He isn’t even, like, hiding it. ‘Hey guys! I’m super-famous within a very limited and nerdy community in Toronto! I can do whatever I want!’ And look at how little he is! You know what you can’t fix? You can’t fix short.”

“That’s true.”

“Also, Joseph Finley? Joseph? How precious are we? What’s wrong with ‘Joe’? Tell me he doesn’t make his friends call him Joseph.”

“I wouldn’t know; I never met his friends. I’m not his friend.”

“You weren’t for a second! If he treated his friends like he treated you, he wouldn’t have any left.”

“Well, don’t some people treat their friends really well, and treat the people they feel romantically toward in kind of a fucked up way?”

There’s an unpleasant pause.

“I mean, I see that around. Lots of people. It’s kind of a trope.”

Sherene shrugs, and then continues.

“And so, what, now you can’t come backstage and watch him interview people? Would that be such a great time, anyway? There might be other stuff to do, on Friday nights in Toronto, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

“He visually smells. You know? And he’s got too little features for so much face.”

“Yeah.”

“He’s the kind of guy you’d play ‘would you rather’ about. Would you rather fuck a dog, or Joseph Finley?”

“It um, depends what kind of dog.”

“I didn’t realize there was a wrong answer to that question, but you found it.”

“Sorry. That was a joke.”

“A joke? Let me tell you—let me show you a joke. Look at his hair in this one. Does he think this’ll distract from his height?”

“I think it’s like, a combover.”

“Yeah, so his hair’s disappearing. Wish I could say the same about that gut.”

This helps, but she senses the chasm between the (true, reasonable) things she is being told to do and executing them. Sherene leaves eventually, hungry to find a party, and Grace goes to bed and sleeps until the next evening.


I.

The robins wake in the dark. Calling and chirping continuously, seeking twig after twig to cement into full nests, repairing rain damage, yanking skinny worms up from the soaked earth, perching higher in the tree to sing. The sky grows grey and then the sun rises. A fledgling takes short flights from branch to ground, ground to branch. A light turns on in the house, then another. The earth heats up, a car pulls out of the driveway. The young woman comes outside and listens to the robins and watches them work, studying them when they appear for brief moments, flitting back and forth, disappearing into the oak’s thick leaves, then reappearing again. The woman stays as still as she can until the rise and fall of their song is all there is, until the deep rhythm of their erratic-seeming activity is located and grows familiar. She begins to cry from relief because the robins have drawn her outside of herself; she is feeling something not in her own head at last. Did the man really pull her outside, or did he push her further in? An ironic truth the birds tell is this: sustaining deep empathy for him will heal her completely.

 

II.

She is a little pudgy and so shimmery with youth, always smoothing and shoving back her glossy hair with the nervous energy of the young and hungry. He couldn’t believe how quickly she drank, how hungrily she sucked back his cigarettes, accepting one every time he offered. Later he discovers her legs are prickly with hair, and he senses her shame an instant after their discovery—she jerks her ankle out of his hand. They lean against his headboard and birds begin to sing outside. All his life, he remembers, he’s ached to protect women from moments like these.

 

III.

A hot August afternoon in downtown Toronto, the Java House patio is over-packed with smoking, chattering, excited young people, slopping beer from foamy jugs into grimy glasses, back and forth, often spilling beer over the railing and on the sidewalk. An older businesswoman, beautifully dressed, passes by and pointedly avoids the spills. A child traces the perimeter of a single spill with her toe and nearly bumps into the woman. A dog, tied to the small fence encircling a nearby sapling, watches them both, twitching her nose. Two young women bike by slowly, and in passing the patio, ease from the sidewalk onto the street. A cab rushes past, then another passes and stops at the light; the young woman looks up and examines it briefly.

“Graham, I — worried for a long time now. And — if only she — but —.” The young woman goes.

“That’s — and if I could — somehow.” The young man goes.

“But — she wouldn’t —. I love her, but—. Mostly I —.” The young woman goes.

“I— you —.” The young man goes.

“I— you.” The young woman goes.

 

IV.

JF: Let me just start out by saying, and I hope you won’t mind me saying so, but you look absolutely lovely, the spitting image of ’60s mod.

VZ: [laughs easily]. Why thank you! I’m not sure exactly the meaning of mod but I’m definitely feeling a ’60s vibe these days. It’s like, simple. You know?

JF: Effortless. Elegant.

VZ: [laughs again.] Thank you!

JF: The new single certainly has an effortless feel to it, too. The pared-down, strummy quality is very different from your earlier work—the very embodiment of a late summer day. What kind of headspace were you in?

VZ: Yeah with my last album I was definitely … feeling dark, you know. Some people were going like, it’s all just an act, but really I was living it all. I was like, you’re all pointless haters because this is real, this is scary. How does it even make sense to say I’m like faking? I know little girls look up to me, and it’s like, I wouldn’t do that on purpose to them. At one point my family was really … [glances toward publicist, who makes imperceptible gesture with one hand]. And so anyways, with this new single I’m like, let’s relax, let’s enjoy, it’s summer! But I’m also like, check it out, my whole life is like summertime now, you know what I mean?

JF: That’s very profound, Vanessa. And I speak for everyone in saying I’m so relieved you’re feeling better these days.

VZ: Thank you. I mean, it’s like, it’s cool that people are into my new stuff. I know on the other hand, there’s some people who were wanting me to like, you know. Fall again.

JF: Interesting. That reminds me of a standout lyric in, let’s see, track three: you build me up/ just to drag me down. That really resonated with me.

VZ: Yeah, for sure. But also it’s like, there’s the risk I won’t be as interesting when I’m happy like this, when my music is happy like this.

JF: Right. Right.

VZ: [laughs]. You agree?

JF: Oh, no! I was just chewing over what you said. So last time we spoke you mentioned you were picking up the flute …

 


Victoria Hetherington is the author of I Have To Tell You (0s&1s, 2014), the full-length novel from which this excerpt has been taken. Her work has appeared in publications like Joyland, This Magazine, Broken Pencil, and This Recording. She lives in Toronto, and you can find her here.

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