The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, Second Place (2017)
The girl I was seeing had this dog, a real fluffy fucker, whose name was Angus. It was her boyfriend’s dog. She was taking care of Angus because his owner was studying abroad in New Zealand for the semester.
I was, finally, over my ex. The summer had passed with me spending its time seeing a girl I didn’t like but pretended to, and a girl who hated me as much as I hated her. After work I would drive to one of their houses or see my friends. The one who hated me did because we had met each other freshman year and I pretended to like her then, but I didn’t, and ended up hurting her, which I was wont to do because I’m not good looking, but I am smart, whereas if I was the opposite, meaning hot and shallow, then I would never hurt anyone, because they would just want to fuck me and be done with it. She has red hair. We had picked it back up again because we were bored and we knew each other. I’d go over her house late at night and we’d fuck in her hot tub and tell each other we hated each other and why before, during, and after.
My friends were keeping me alive.
After working my way through the summer I had convinced myself that I was happy being alone. Everybody knows I’m girl crazy – people were surprised that I was still single when junior year started, but I got by just flirting and messing around with a few girls. That’s why, when I matched on Tinder (this app hath giveth, hath taken away) with this girl Léa, I laughed and didn’t think much of it. Sophomore year I had developed a crush on her from meeting her that one time at the student newspaper banquet. We had spoken during production of the paper before – I was a copy editor and she worked on layout – and now we apparently had some time on our hands. The Tinder conversation went as follows:
Léa: Hey, what’s up?
Me: Fancy meeting you here lol
Léa: I know, right?
Me: I thought you had a boyfriend. You bring his dog in the newsroom all the time.
Léa: Straight to the point, huh? I do, but he’s studying abroad this semester. We’re in an open relationship.
Me: Of course you are. Well okay then. How do we proceed?
Léa: Do you want to come over tonight?
Me: It’s midnight on a Monday.
Me: I’ll be right there.
An hour later I showed up at her door with a half bottle of rum and some weed. She let me in and said hello then returned to the couch. I petted Angus for a while. What an adorable dog! So ready to accept your advances, and to lovingly advance upon you, tongue out, all five-and-a-half feet of him begging for a hug.
Léa’s roommate had a Tinder date over too. They were on the couch together. I sat on the beanbag chair adjacent Léa, who was also on the couch. We were watching a movie. I drank, cracked jokes, made fun of Léa a little, tried to act like I was above it, but I had never actually met someone off Tinder before, I mean I knew Léa beforehand, but still, the concept was baffling to me, and she was so goddamn beautiful, I mean really, truly gorgeous, she was born and raised in Paris before moving here at age 14, had short hair like a flapper, wore glasses and looked smart (and was smart) and had one of the best, most shapely asses I’d ever seen, and finally, around 3 a.m., we descended into her room in the basement. Angus followed us.
“Should the dog be down here?” I asked.
“He’s fine,” she said.
“Alright. So, thanks for having me. I guess I’ll be going home now. I wouldn’t want to intrude.” She looked at me for a moment then kind of laughed to herself.
“Shut up and get on the bed.”
I could barely control myself. She was so sexy. This wasn’t her first time doing this. She probably had boys over to keep her busy while he was gone all the time. We had drunk, sloppy, quick sex, fell asleep, then had sex in the morning, too, maybe because she felt bad, or because she knew it would be the last time, and I mean I was definitely happy, but I underperformed, because I didn’t know the chick, and she had a boyfriend, and like I said, she was gorgeous, and then we tried again in the morning, which was a bit better, but she left for class before I was dressed.
Over the next couple weeks I saw other girls but I really wanted to see her again. I’m not going to try and posture, it was honestly because she was pretty, that’s it, I mean she carried herself in this confident, awe-inspiring way, and we smoked cigarettes after fucking, which I thought was cool, and I made fun of her for being French, and her room was great and spacious and romantic, a candle lit on the bedside, music playing and everything, she seemed so intelligent, we had great text conversations, but it was honestly because she was pretty, that’s it.
We would see each other here and there outside her place. She was blackout drunk at a football tailgate and we drank champagne together and we made out for a while and held hands. She kept kissing my neck. One time we went to a mutual friend’s party and I drove her home while I was drunk, because she needed a ride, and then we made out for a good fifteen minutes on her front step, really impressive stuff, not too much tongue, like porn stars before the film starts, but then she smiled, laughed, said “not tonight,” and closed the door in my face.
I had to have her again.
She kept warning me away, she could tell I was too into it, I tried to play it like she was too into it, though, like she couldn’t handle seeing me because my charms were just too much and I would almost certainly whisk her away to settle down in Portland and own a bookstore, like I imagined.
It wasn’t until I stopped talking to her, until I had basically given up, that she came back. I went a week without saying a word to her – she texted me first once and we talked, but that was it. Every time we talked I would ask her if I could come over and she would make up some excuse as to why it couldn’t happen. Once she even told me she was seeing another guy instead. That was about the time I shut the hell up and got on with my life.
I copy edited from 6-9 p.m. on Tuesdays. She had the 9-12 shift after me the same day. She would walk in, all confident and sexy, Angus by her side, that big, grey, friendly Labradoodle, and I would try and talk to her shortly, pull up a chair next to her and her big computer, ask how her day was, and she would humor me, then I’d be on my way. I remember that this night was in November, because I had begun to let my facial hair grow. It was nothing special, but it was noticeable.
Usually, on these Tuesday nights, I would take my copy editing partner home and we would have sex and then I would kick her out. She was cool but there wasn’t any magic about it, for me, anyway. For some reason, that night, I wasn’t in the mood. At 1 a.m. Léa texted me and told me she liked my facial hair. We talked a little bit back and forth, but I wasn’t about to give in. She had held too much power over me for too long. Finally, at 2 a.m., she asked if I wanted to come over to “smoke and spoon.” I obliged.
This was performance art. We got high, probed each other, then she took off my clothes. We got onto bed together and afterwards, when she was breathless, and I was speechless, she asked me if I was seeing other people.
“Because you seem to have improved considerably.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Of course not.”
“What, you think I wait around all day for you? I got options, baby.”
“Well okay then. Nice.”
“There’s this one girl that likes me, but I don’t like her, and another who we work with, and then some British chick.”
“Good to know. I wish you’d tell me the one we work with.”
“Because you know I like you more than her and then you can have that over her without deserving it.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
We got up to smoke a cigarette by her sliding door, blowing the smoke outside into the dark. Whenever we did this during those days I would try to reach into her and pull out some morsel of information, because she was so secretive, and I was quite curious, but it was only rarely that she’d give any of herself up.
You must understand that I had thought that I could have been with, like, dated, and stuff, two of the girls that I had seen since the ex. Neither worked out, they both had boyfriends. I told myself to chill and just let it ride. The truth was, I was having fun. But sometimes, in the dark, after a lonely day where I would ignore my roommates and only do some of my schoolwork, before I fell asleep, I would still find myself wondering why I treated my ex the way I did, why I had fought to leave her, and just what, exactly, was I doing now? For Léa to creep in, whether she meant to or not, whether she meant to make me like her or feel whatever that feeling is when you can’t rid someone’s name from your thoughts or not, was egregious. How dare she? With her established life, friends, and significant other? How dare she be perfect, how dare she ingratiate herself into the life I’d built, a life now based on merit, forceful writing, good grades, and long conversations with friends? And how dare she make me love this fucking dog who was basically a human and would bury his head into you and would tell you when he was hungry, when he wanted to be fed, when he wanted to be let out, and I would let him out, then play with him and walk back in and see Léa smiling at us and telling Angus to come to her, a dog who would jump on you, his paws on your shoulders, seemingly smiling, this impeccable animal who was not mine, but made me think of my dog Mozart who had died, because they both loved the people who took care of them so damn much, and would lose their damn minds when you walked through the door?
Smoke and spoon night started a trend. More like a schedule. Léa and I would execute our respective days then talk at night and I would come over. I began sleeping at her house regularly, with a couple exceptions in case she wanted to “maintain distance.” I started knowing her. She started begrudgingly telling me things. I had to dig, but she told me what she wanted to be and why (either manager of personal art collections or some position in a gallery), why she loved art so much and wanted to dedicate herself to it, why she took care of everybody around her like they shared her blood. She started telling me things, about her past, about her family, how hard it was to not speak a word of English while a sophomore in an American high school, started letting me in on her music taste, I started coming over earlier to watch movies with her and have her cook dinner for us, to get high with her.
Every now and then she would leave the room we were in to talk on the phone with her boyfriend. I would pretend I didn’t know what was happening. One time she did this immediately after we had sex. She jumped off the bed, both of us still naked, and into her bathroom. I rubbed Angus and heard muffled phrases through the door: “I miss you too baby,” “No, I love you more,” and the like. It was good. Didn’t bother me. Helped remind me what this was.
Every time I came over, Angus got more and more excited to see me, to the point that Léa said one day: “I think he thinks you’re his owner now…”
I loved Angus. I wanted him to die. He was so cuddly and the girls treated him like another roommate. I wanted to sell him off to the Chinese. He was so cute, everybody in the newsroom loved him, considered him journalism’s mascot. Every time I saw him I wanted to drop him off in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a leash and bag of dog food, the fucker. He was the best animal, the embodiment of loyalty, love, and affection, the reason we adore our pets and would never do anything to hurt them. I wanted him to go away forever, but I hoped he would tell the boyfriend what his girlfriend and I did every night.
I was doing pretty well with the whole Léa thing. Angus loved me, Léa liked me, and I got to have mind-blowing sex almost every night. She would cook me breakfast and dinner a lot and I had even started believing we could be friends when all this was over, smiling knowingly to ourselves about our big secret, our torrid love affair, our respective boyfriend and girlfriend on our arms.
That changed when I crashed my car.
I was on my way to Léa’s. It was midnight. It was raining.
“So when do you plan on coming over?” she had texted me.
“Right after I finish smoking this blunt with the boys.”
“Lol. I can come pick you up. That’s dangerous.”
“Don’t worry about it lady, I drive high all the time.”
“If you say so…”
Three cars stopped abruptly in front of me as I tried to choose a new song on my phone. I attempted to break but slid on the wet pavement into the SUV’s bumper. My car was totaled. His didn’t have a scratch.
I called her.
“I crashed my car.” She laughed.
“I wish I was joking.”
“Wooooow. I’ll be right there.”
She came. We stood in the rain, outside the car, looking at it, me wondering how this had happened, how I had simply killed a car I’d driven since junior year of high school, my first car, an important car. She took turns hugging me, kissing me, laughing at me, scolding me. We were there for two hours before it was towed. I embraced her tightly for a long time.
When we got back to her house, she made us food, we got high, and then we had slow, deliberate sex. I’d venture to say we made love. I almost forgot about the accident.
Her boyfriend was set to return from New Zealand in just over a month.
“Listen, I’m going to have to start seeing you less in the coming weeks.”
“Why?” I knew why.
“So we can make a clean break when he gets back.”
“Haha. Whatever you say.”
We went through the same routine. I would come over, we would have fun, have sex, repeat. I told my friends that I was pretty broken up about this. They told me I was stupid, that she was using me. So I told her she was using me.
We had finished, were about to go to bed, I was holding her to me under the covers, two weeks until Angus’s dad returned. The weaning thing wasn’t going well; if anything, we were seeing each other more.
“Léa, I gotta say something.”
She turned to me and smiled, as if she was expecting this. I had to pause. Her face was basked in brilliance, a few strands of golden hair framing her lips perfectly, her eyes jumping at you, challenging you.
“Sure, what is it?”
“Well, I, well, I think we both know, at this point, that this is more than, uh, just sex.”
“And, well, I wanted to say that I feel used. So I thought we might as well get it out in the open, that I like you, and you like me, and, I know that I’ve become your replacement boyfriend these past couple months.” She was quiet for a few seconds.
“I’m sorry that I made you feel used. But you’re mostly right. You’re right.”
“Yes. But that doesn’t change anything.”
“Okay. As long as we know what this is.”
“I do.” She kissed me then went into the little spoon position. “Can you let Angus out before we got to sleep?” she asked.
Angus and I went outside and I closed the door behind me.
“Go potty, Angus.” He trundled off toward the blackness. After a couple minutes I called him back. He came bounding back to me, wagging his tail.
“Good boy. Now tell me what’s so special about your owner. Why does Léa like him so much? I mean, I’m pretty good too, right? My dick works and I can speak words coherently and prepare food and sometimes even tell jokes. I seem to make her happy, focused, I have a calming effect on her at the right times. Why him and not me? How did I end up here?” Angus jumped on me, a paw on each of my shoulders. We went back inside.
A week until the boyfriend comes home. He gets back on New Year’s Eve. She’s meeting him at the airport. This night is supposed to be our last together. It’s the beginning of winter break. We drive up and meet each other at school.
She leaves at one point to talk on the phone with her boyfriend, disappears downstairs. For the first time, this bothers me, I mean, it really gets to me. I go outside to walk around and punch the air a little bit. Her roommate follows.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing, just walking around.”
“You like mom, don’t you?” That’s what her friends call her.
“How could you tell?”
“It’s okay, everybody does. She just has history with him, you know? It’s not your fault.”
Léa comes out to the front step.
“What are you guys doing?”
“Smoking a cigarette,” I yell back. We rejoin her inside.
I pensively stroke Angus’s ears. We’re watching a movie. I fall asleep on Léa’s lap but can hear her say things like, “It’s okay, it’s his last night,” to the roommate. We go downstairs. We make love. I give her a letter.
Look, I had to. I didn’t have a choice. It was that movie moment where you have to tell the person how you feel. But in my fucking situation, that wasn’t all I had to do, no, I had to fucking persuade her to leave her boyfriend, to date me, good old me, relationship baggage me, writer with no real skills me, far-left-liberal wannabe Malcolm X me, sad, lonely, forgetful, irresponsible me, going up against this unknown entity, who is by all accounts handsome, charismatic, had chemistry with her, and, you know, was dating her, but me, desperate me, handed her this four page, single-spaced letter, left her to read it alone, told her I needed to do this, I didn’t have a choice, and she dutifully read it while I smoked a cigarette upstairs with her roommate, who had become a part of our melodrama.
I go downstairs. She tells me that it was beautifully articulated. And that she feels the same. She feels the same? She feels the same. She feels the same! But it’s bad timing, really bad timing. She isn’t sure she can do anything, she doesn’t think she can do anything, she’s upset about it. She has feelings for me. It doesn’t matter.
We say a sad goodbye outside my car the next morning. It’s uncertain. It feels like we’re going to see each other again. And we do, four days later, after she sends me a heartbreaking letter.
“…At first I wanted to be a short story, eventful but forgettable in the grand scheme of things. I can’t deny that I slowly started to want more though, that I craved the way you looked at me, the way you both stroked and stabbed my ego with underhanded compliments. I hate how true all your words sounded. I hate that you know exactly what to say and when to say it and that somehow, you manage to strike a chord every time and leave me speechless. I hate that you managed to pin down some of the deepest and darkest parts of me within a few weeks of knowing me. I hate that, somehow, it made you want to see me more. You exposed me and admired me; you made me question my morality and made me accept its lack of rationality…
“…You said you stopped pretending when I stopped treating you like you were nothing. I think that’s when I realized just how smart you were, and just how well our minds worked together. The respect I developed for you from that point on surprised me; I found myself feeling guilty, feeling manipulated, by your wits and charms and your ability to cut straight through my bullshit and make me look you in the eyes instead. Respect is not a thing I give easily, mostly because I’m a conceited bitch with an oversized ego and the attitude that goes with it, but also because I only give it to people who have earned it. Respect brings you on my level, in my mind at least, and makes me take everything you say to heart…
“You were my plaything, you were my cooking partner, you were the one who kept me warm at night and kept my insanity at bay. You were the one who made me laugh and annoyed me at the same time. You drove me nuts and calmed me down. You made me hate you, doubt you, hurt you and want you all at once. I’ll admit it; you made me need you at times too. I didn’t make you come every night for those last few weeks simply because I wanted sex, or your witty conversation. I wanted the way you looked at me when you first walked through my front door. I wanted the touch of your hands on the arch of my back when you pulled me closer. I wanted your kiss to drown my confusion temporarily, just long enough to forget about the rest of the world. I wanted the serenity that you brought to my room, casting away my solitude as if it were nothing. I wanted more of your pretty words, I liked what they stirred in me, I liked that they made me fantasize about something different, new, and romantic. I liked the idea of the modern writer and his dysfunctional muse, too caught up in her toxic cycle of drugs, sex, and alcohol to appreciate what was given to her.
“Timing is a bitch really, right up there with fate. They both entail a sadistic sense of humor. Looking back on the last year, I realized that I hated being alone, but I also couldn’t be with someone without proximity. I thought I was just too wild to be tamed, too much to be handled by one person at once.
“You’re what I want and I’m what you need, and as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, it’s just not enough to make a difference right now. You’ve forced me to face things I wasn’t quite yet ready to face, to reconsider a relationship that has barely started but that I have already gotten invested in. Somehow you’ve managed to spread doubts in my mind when up until now, there was such a blissful clarity.
“So I need time, I need to reflect on where I am, who I am, and what I want. I thought I knew, but then you showed up and made me remember who I wanted to be and what I could do with the proper support, and now I need to recalibrate. I refuse to settle, but I also refuse to give up. I need time to make more mistakes I can learn from, and form my own opinions on what my decisions are at the moment. Once I figure it all out, and if it comes down to it, I hope you’ll be the one standing there telling me ‘I told you so.’”
We hung out again, it doesn’t matter how or where. I told her she should be with me. She said she wasn’t sure. She said she had to think about it. Before we left, we kissed. She’d be back with him in four days. She made it sound like she’d rather be with me. I had to wait.
We were both at school for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but we were apart. She stopped by my party and left before 9:30. Ten minutes after she left I had blacked out. I can vaguely remember, or I was told, that I did bad things, kissed girls I called my friends, danced with girls I usually keep a distance from, got violent with my door, got into twenty person bloody brawls with guys who were asking for it. I knew she was with him, sleeping with him, changing her mind, going back to him. She came over unannounced on New Year’s Day after our night apart.
“What happened? Why are you here?” I asked.
“I broke up with him.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re not dating, but we might still see each other.”
“Christ, I’ll take it, for now. So you’ll be coming with me to the party tonight?”
“No, I promised to hang out with him and his friends.”
“Ah. Okay then.”
“Sorry babe.” We hugged, we kissed, she drove away.
Three days later she was at my house in my hometown. My family was gone. She told me she wanted to be with me.
“Okay, then stop seeing him.”
“I can’t yet. It needs to be slow. I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want him to know why.”
She saw him a few more times after that. Never did anything with him, thank God. Said she only went over there to see Angus. In late January, she officially broke up with him. On January 31st, she was my girlfriend.
Now we do the same things we did that first semester except I don’t have to worry about him, just the future, just myself. Léa is good to me, and I’m trying to deserve it. Now I am in love and, despite all my deficiencies, I feel right, as if I wrote my reality into existence.
I never saw Angus again. I see Léa every day. The best part of every day is when we’re alone. I don’t need anything else. I don’t care anymore. She is the world, everything it promises to be, says it is, looks like, she is its embodiment, she is all there is, and I will never forget that, and I will always love her. Right?
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full edition of this piece.