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When the Messenger Is Hot: Stories


SARAH OR ANYA OR MAX is five foot ten, five foot nine or five foot eight, but never shorter, and she's naturally thin. She's thirty or she's twenty, or she's almost forty and looks ten years younger even when she rolls out of bed in the morning. She's not a flawless beauty, but you think she is, and she has perfect skin and wears no makeup, or she won't leave the house without eyebrow pencil and blood-red lipstick, her trademark. Her hair is dark with short bangs, or it changes lengths and colors several times during the course of the year or three or nine months you're together, or it's long and thick and curly and when you tell her never to cut it, she goes into the bathroom with your clippers to cut it down to a quarter inch because she won't be told what to do by a man and when she's done you fuck each other hard on the bathroom floor. Her panties and bras match, or she doesn't wear a bra because her whatever-size breasts are perfectly proportioned and she hates the constriction of underwires. She shaves every bit of hair off her body, or she doesn't shave her armpits or her bikini line because it is a subversion of femininity to do so, and after your first month together, during which time you're decidedly uncertain about your own female body hair policy, you come to defend this point of view when it arises in conversation, without mentioning names. She wears a tiny four-hundreddollar cashmere sweater she pilfered from a photo shoot with inside-out sweatpants and manages to make it look sexy, or she wears a striped sleeve for a hat that on anyone else you would be forced to call into question, or if she has any money she wears tight black pants with heels and a dry-cleaned white blouse with a pearl choker, and she has tattoos that only a few people will see, or a pierced clitoris, and if you ever tell her an outfit looks cute, she will change. You leave work to make love to her in the kitchen, or you skip work to drive to some motel and stop at a phone booth on the tollway instead because you can't make it that far, or you quit your bartending job entirely because it's interfering with your mutual need to have hourly sex, or you only make love a few times early on because she has issues, which you think you will cure her of by doing everything possible to please her, which you don't, and you go to therapy together a few times, where a pinched-looking woman tells you it's no one's fault, but you will still take it personally.

In high school she got effortless straight A's and constantly complained about the incompetence of the faculty, or she ditched to smoke pot in the park and talk about the books that ought to be on the requiredreading list. When she was three her hippie parents finally got married, wearing flowers in their hair and matching embroidered dresses, or by the time she was eight she loathed her blue-collar parents for bringing children into a cesspool of wood paneling and avocado appliances, or she came from such old Upper East Side money that no one recalled where it came from and wouldn't speak of it even if they did because it was improper, and went to Brearley for twelve long years but hated it and her parents by the time she was fourteen, when she went from wearing Carter's to wearing no underpants at all underneath her school uniform. When her parents were married, they had sex loudly and all the time, and talked openly about it, or it never took place at all and was not discussed until the time of her first abortion in her sophomore year, at which time her father was heard to say to her mother, Pay by cash, and nothing more. When they were divorced her mother had a series of lovers, or she developed a fondness for prescription pills, or she remarried immediately, to a man who had no known record of employment or social security number, who touched Sarah or Anya or Max in an inappropriate sexual manner conveniently short of anything criminal. She had an affair with the newly graduated physics teacher in her junior year, or when she was a senior she fucked a sophomore in the boys' locker room, and she had no long-term friendships to speak of, or a best girlfriend she experimented with sexually and picked fights with after breaking their plans on a rare Saturday night when she didn't have a date.

She went to Harvard or Wesleyan or graduated early from Bennington, where she had a string of openly lesbian affairs but refused to define her sexuality as gay, straight, or bi, all of the above being limiting, or she broke up the marriage of her rhetoric professor and immediately thereafter left him for a mechanic she lived with for a year, who she subsequently left for a guy she bummed a cig off of at a poetry reading. She majored in comparative literature or Eastern philosophy and graduated with honors, or quit with one semester left to join the Israeli army. She's been in graduate school for five years, waiting tables and working on her thesis on the deconstruction of aesthetic preconceptions in Dadaism, or she sells dresses made from tarot cards on the corner of Houston and Lafayette, or she's a freelance stylist who prior to you dated mostly indie rock stars with a penchant for heroin, or she makes a fortune in advertising but complains bitterly about how she's sold out and should have stayed in art school, but can't break her addiction to Kate Spade bags and anything from Kiehl's. She's been engaged three times and still has all the rings, or she's been married in the eyes of god but doesn't feel the need to prove anything with meaningless papers or rings, and she has ended every relationship she's been in. She's had more than one abortion, which she'll mention but not discuss, or she refers to her hospitalization with little detail except to say it was a mistake and the reason she lost custody of her only daughter, and she's manic or depressive, but never both. She has stacks of identical black hardbound notebooks festooned with band stickers or cigarette burns, and she spends hours filling them with ideas or feelings or drawings, or poetry that on the rare occasion she decides to share, will go over your head or be worse than bad, but you won't say so, and you are probably so blindly in love that you won't realize it either way. She listens to Hole or Bj?rk or Liz Phair, or she describes Liz Phair as polite and says that there aren't any female artists who haven't sold out, and listens to some kind of noise that she plays passionately for you and tries to explain in detail, and you will listen patiently to both the explanation and the alleged music as one or the other drives a power tool through your brain, and she will make love to you after this, but it might hurt. Or she has a subscription to the opera, which would cause you to want to die tragically before the tenor has a chance to, were it not for the fact that she invites you to masturbate her during some critical aria.

She drives a rusty pale blue Dodge Dart and knows how to adjust the timing, which gives you a hard-on just thinking about it, or she drives a brandnew BMW and makes excuses about it, or her license has been suspended for a year because of three speeding tickets but she's still driving around anyway. At dinner she eats meat and always orders an appetizer and dessert, or she's been a vegetarian since she was seventeen because the sacrifice of animals is inhumane, but she wears a curly lamb coat because it's vintage and chain-smokes Marlboros. Her stuff is in storage because she was traveling in Turkey for six months, or if she has an apartment, you can't see the floor through the clothes, or there are books piled up everywhere, and it smells like cigarettes and patchouli and dog. There's a beaded curtain somewhere and lots of religious candles, or unstretched mostly black paintings on the walls and an Indian-cotton bedspread thumbtacked over the window, and it's a onebedroom she shares with a guy she used to have sex with, or it's an all-white loft the size of a football field with nothing in it but a bed and track lighting and dozens of mammoth paintings given to her by artist friends, some of which are hung but most of which are leaned up against the wall like records, one in front of another, and when you become absorbed in one of the numerous portraits of her, she says, I don't really like that, in such a way that actually makes your heart hurt for the ex-lover who painted it. She moves in with you at the end of your second date and makes you think it was your idea.

You meet when she slam-dances into you at the Mudd Club, or at a gas station where she's shoving and cursing at a guy twice her size who kicked his pit bull she's locked inside her Jeep, or when you go to pick up dog food at the groomer's, where she's got a squirrelly Pomeranian on a steel table, a pair of shears in one hand, a comb in the other, and a cigarette dangling from her lips. You talk all night and discover that you share favorite obscure authors, or that she has a passion for monster trucks or wild game, which causes you to propose immediately with absolute naive sincerity and her to cavalierly toss her head back in laughter because you do not yet know that she has been proposed to countless times in a similar manner, and you make love from 8 a.m. until noon in ways you never imagined possible, or you dry hump with all your clothes on and ejaculate prematurely for which you are sensitively forgiven, or forgiven with a Mona Lisa look on her face that you choose to interpret as sensitive, but might not be.

You love her because she can talk about cars or dogs or wild game or politics, about which she has a point of view that you may or may not agree with, and because she never asks what you're feeling, for which she is exalted until you realize that this is because she isn't about to tell you either. You love her bras in your bathroom and her cigarette butts in your beer cans, or her pearls and tap pants on your kitchen floor. You love that her dog has gone to obedience school and she loves your unsuppressed instinct to heel when she's actually giving commands to the dog. You love when she uses your razor or drinks Jack Daniel's from the bottle, or watching her masturbate, which she does frequently. You love the way she laughs from deep in her throat, or watching her pull her split ends apart, or that she throws a softball overhand. You love her because she will agree to a drive across country with a moment's notice, or she will invite a girlfriend to join you in fulfilling your ultimate fantasy of a three-way, which you will chicken out on, or she'll try mushrooms with you on a camping trip. You adore her because everything that's attractive about her seems accidental, when in fact there is always some presence of calculation, or at least an awareness that a centimeter of her pale belly is visible between her ribbed turtleneck and her Levi's, or that you've been watching her masturbate since the beginning. What she does that drives you mad is she calls her mother daily and tells her everything, everything, or she hasn't spoken to either of her parents in years, but refuses to mitigate this choice by seeking help, or perhaps talking to you, or she changes the code on her voice mail so that you can't access it, and seems to be checking it more often, or when you start hearing "you've got mail" more times a day than the total number of friends you have combined even though she previously decried the insidiousness of the Internet, and casually defends herself by saying she's catching up with an old friend, which will cause you to spend many hours illuminated only by the light of your laptop trying to no avail to crack her voice-mail code, her e-mail code, her bank code, any kind of code that will provide you with some glint of information about the woman you have been living with who you fantasize is an international spy because the only other explanation is that the only woman you will ever love, the woman to whom all future women will be compared (unfavorably), is obviously a stranger. You stop short of stalking, because you're slightly more stable than that and because she lives in your house, but she will have a full-on mental breakdown if you try to define your relationship, or if you take thirty minutes instead of ten to bring back a pack of Camels, which is around the time when you notice that she starts to notice the bartender at P & G, or after an argument she spends a night at her girlfriend's when you know she doesn't have even one, and afterward unashamedly admits to sleeping with someone else but says it didn't mean anything, or that it did, and she's leaving you. She breaks up with you because she's in love with the lead singer of a band you've never heard of and she hopes you'll try to understand because she's never felt this way about anyone before and you've been really important to her but she won't say how or why and you suddenly and tragically realize this is the most heartfelt expression of feelings she's ever offered you, or because the way your towel on the bed day after day is causing her to slowly lose her mind, or for no reason at all, but she is always the one who decides. You don't date at all for an entire year after your breakup, or you have a series of short-term relationships with nice girls you just aren't in love with, or you move in with a sous chef you really do care about but don't go to any great lengths to hide the one blurry photo of your happy minute with Sarah or Anya or Max, and almost break up with Jenny or Katie or Sue over the detritus you refuse to discard even after the ultimatum. Your chance at redemption occurs three or five or ten years later when you and Jenny or Katie or Sue run into Sarah or Anya or Max at the P & G, where you haven't been since before she broke up with you, and she's still gorgeous but looks really tired flirting with the new bartender, or when you run into her just after your play got nominated for an Obie and she tells you she's almost finished with her thesis, or she just filed for bankruptcy after no one bought her fall line of sleeve hats, but the deliverance fails because in spite of knowing better you can't help thinking of Sarah or Anya or Max when Jenny or Katie or Sue turns up a Hootie or Basia or Jewel song on the car radio, or because you're just a decent enough guy not to fully enjoy someone else's pathetic life, even if it is the girlfriend who ruined yours.

Excerpted from When the Messenger Is Hot © Copyright 2004 by Elizabeth Crane. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.

When the Messenger Is Hot: Stories
by by Elizabeth Crane

  • paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316608467
  • ISBN-13: 9780316608466