Space 1: Between sophomore and junior years
Body Type: A pale, soft-squeezed clay
In order to see the shape of Stevie, start here, with the shapes of the guys. Her first boyfriend in college was Mexican. Her first boyfriend called her, he called to her, Jelly Barbarella. She was twenty, he was twenty-six, and she was like so what, to her friends, to the world, a world in which six years was something to gawk about. It was not a creative world. It was vestigial suburbia, everything in a bag, that she brought with her, though many things she did not pack in her bag came along too.
Jelly Barbarella, he called to her, and she came. She came on so many ships, sailed the fuck in, so many white sails flapping in the cold, dark wind. But what did he know of her. What did she let him know, of her. Diego was an artist, a painter-sculptor, he had grown up on some mean streets, and all his old neighbors were in jail or dead, and he had a motorcycle that he rode with a tiny video camera attached to his helmet sometimes. He told her that it was just part of life, unthinking obligation, instinct, to comment on women. He told her that getting honked at, whistled at, mumbled and muttered indecipherable comments at, should be water off her back. He said that he was upholding a long tradition of the male gaze, not just as an artist, he said, though in what other way he did not say. He said that even what was a response to conventional norms and socially-enforced stereotypes and millennia of misogyny and sexism, was still part of humanity. His father before him was a sculptor, who sculpted tiny men with huge penises.
He invited Stevie to meet his mother when she came to visit. They took a walk around Echo Park Lake. The bougainvillea flowers in the neighborhood were blinding, magenta bright sun spots in your eyes. The three of them strolled around the lone fancy home goods boutique. The three of them stood in front of a shelf with minimalist ring dishes spaced evenly apart. Diego’s mother ruffled her son’s hair. I don’t know where he got his face, she said fondly. He doesn’t look like me or his father. He looks like an ancient Mayan god with that nose and that mouth, doesn’t he? Diego snorted and rolled his eyes, but patted his mother’s cheek affectionately and then sauntered outside for a smoke. Diego’s mother looped her arm through Stevie’s, and then accidentally knocked over a small bowl on display, a considerable portion of it chipping off. While Stevie was expressing dismay, Diego’s mother rotated the bowl, held her finger up to her lips, shhhh, winked at Stevie, and slipped mock-furtively away. Stevie blinked, and walked away too. She did not know that mothers could be like that. She tried to imagine her own mother pushing aside her usual altitudinal sense of righteousness, morality, propriety—pushed aside like a beaded curtain—to act like a teenager. She could not imagine it.
Space 2: Between West L.A. and West Hollywood
Body Type: Expanding, like an invisible gas
Stevie met Miles when she was sleeping on an inflatable mattress. She had been hesitant about how long she could sustain a sleeping life with an inflatable—the ostensible reason being that it wasn’t the most comfortable sleeping surface, but secretly, she was afraid that it would be the nails to the coffin in her already-so-dormant-as-to-appear-dead sex life. Miles taught her that you can have sex on anything. He seemed to enjoy saying this to her, with his cock inside of her. Later on, even with his cock inside of her—whereas at the beginning, she wouldn’t be thinking of anything else, as if his cock, once it penetrated her, expanded, filling up everything, took the shape of the entire inside of her body, spread into the folds of her very brain, in a turgid, turbid, gross way, like the feeling of needing to exhale out your ears—later on, even with his cock inside all of her in this way, all she could think about was, well, you’re not having sex on me. You can’t have sex on me.
Even then, their sex was not sex. It was Miles having sex with someone inside of her, perhaps a more sexual person. Or was it a less sexual person.
Space 3: A time-out, somewhere between Lavagna and Lucca
Body Type: Open and fleshy, ready to be shaped, about to speak
Stevie met Paolo near the bed and breakfast on a terraced vineyard hillside, on the northwestern coast of Italy, in the springtime. He rode on his scooter, around the bend, zooming, but slowly, puttered, tapped a leather shoe on the asphalt, squinted at her, sucked on his cigarette. He didn’t say much. Though Stevie liked to remember him as comparable to Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck—which, as a kid, she had watched over and over again with her mother—with his mane, his hoarse voice, his dramatically gesturing wooden hand, he was not effusive, like Nicolas Cage, nor did he have a wooden hand. What he did have was unkempt hair and a white undershirt, and a reticence that could be masking a deep and fiery love. It took Stevie three days to learn that Paolo had just finished graduate studies in archaeology, that he was expected to take over the inn with his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and “adopted Indian cousin.” He had been ending a romance with Lucia, the painter, for the last three years, he told her. She nodded, crossing her arms, sucking on her own cigarette, her sandals making grinding sounds on the gravel in the backyard garden. She thought of the film, Sex and Lucia, and the girl in it, riding her bike in a dress only a Mediterranean girl could wear on a bike. She thought of Lust, Caution, in which all of the characters were hiding and repressing things, and the secretive women wore a lot of silk and high collars. Sex, Lucia, Lust, Caution, this was the way of the world, as Stevie understood it—everything was about combinations of pairs, everything was about relationships between people and their feelings, everything was about sex, everything was about where you came from, and what you wore while coming.
Space 4: Between Some Guy #11 and Some Guy #17
Body Type: Cotton-edged, like clouds
Last year, she was just dating Some Guy. She sometimes refers to him as Some Guy #12, or even #16, even though this is lying. He wanted to see her. A Saturday. Text message. He was brewing beer on his patio. He kissed her. Remember when we had sex outside here on the patio in the fall, he said in her ear. She laughed. She tried to think of something unsentimental and nonchalant to say. Remember when we broke your hammock? she said. This was appropriate to say because, surprisingly, they were not trying to have sex on the hammock. They brought the keg inside. She gave him a blowjob, as he stood, leaning back against the wool arm of his wool couch. Fucking wool couch. Nobody wants to touch a wool couch in the summer. He wanted to be able to see her, so she got on her knees. He came in her mouth, and when she paused and moved her mouth away for a second, the rest spurted into the air. Porn-style, exciting. She laughed.
They got up and showered. He set up the hammock. She got up to leave. He told her to try the hammock. She put her purse down, and got in. She decided not to leave. She stayed put. She couldn’t move—perfect temperature, perfect breeze, perfect view of green leaves and trees and branches up high, everything disappeared. She didn’t even think about how this was all taking place on the patio of some boy’s house, some boy she didn’t even like all the way, some boy she didn’t like enough, to her liking. Some Guy #12. Guy or Boy, which one was a more transparent way to relegate, to deem unimportant? Transparency was very important. Be very clearly this type of girl.
Space 5: Between three retail jobs and five restaurant jobs
Body Type: A blur, wisp of shadow
After Some Guy #Something, Stevie got a job opening up American Apparel retail stores. It was Los Angeles, it was the early 2000s, and half of the expressionless models in the AA ads, lamé unitards stretched over baby-fat flesh, were people she knew, and even respected. What were they doing? She stared at their faces. Could she do that? She looked at her own face in the mirror. She wasn’t quite sure. She could work managing the stores at least. For a while, she did that. For a while, she did other retail. Her roommate Alyssa works at American Apparel still. Alyssa was recently given the task of driving around and giving out free string bikinis. She got tired and just stuffed them all in her trunk and took a nap in her car. And then she cleaned out her car, and now through their front window, you can see a semi-curtain semi-art installation made out of various solid-colored American Apparel bikini tops.
For a while, Stevie worked in so many restaurants, making so many fancy desserts. For a while, she was a 24-hour diner waitress—her coworkers were a ragtag team of mostly fuck-ups, Z-list actors, and a couple of local Thai Town teens. For a while she was a hostess at a fancy corporate restaurant where she made thirty-five bucks an hour to sweetly smile and be the most accommodating, patient, understanding, bright, and serviceable person in the world. She wrote things down on her clipboard so she could find people later, when their tables were ready. Flower shirt. Plaid. Suit. Red hair. Crocs. Board shorts. (This was the Westside.) Bald. She shouldn’t write bald. Sometimes, people leaned over to look at her clipboard, to check if she had spelled their name correctly, or gotten the number of their party correctly, or just to be nosey. She would gracefully, subtly, shift slightly back, tilting the clipboard away. Even though she was not really hiding anything. She wrote down what time they first checked in with her, so that later, when they claimed they had been waiting for one hour, she could gracefully show them that they were liars.
For the most part she made very little money in the restaurants. Her eating and sleeping hours were off. She went out, to everything, at all hours. Everything that was cheap or free. She started eating food combinations that would have given her eighteen-year old college self a run for her money. Orange juice in her oatmeal. Not even oatmeal. Just dry instant oats. When she talked to her parents on the phone, and her mother asked her if she’d eaten, what had she eaten?, Stevie always said, oh, just leftovers.
Space 6: Between two chairs and a wall of boxes
Body Type: A bunny, a lamb, but it’s too dark to see
Next, we see Stevie finally emerging out of the cobbling-together-five-restaurant-jobs chrysalis. She has started working at just one restaurant, a Chinese restaurant so that she can meet some Chinese people. Recently, she had a party at her house, and afterwards, someone was like, it was all white people. She blanched. She started working at the restaurant. She has never before in her life had so many ultra Chinese names in her cell phone address book. Ming. Yi Wei. Ling Mei. Lian. Wu Baixi. Sometimes on the train, usually around Pershing Square or on Vermont on the Red Line, when she has no cell phone reception, she will just scroll through her cell phone address book, her eyes catching on these strange letter combinations. Chinese people with Chinese names.
At first, Stevie and Jianpeng, aka Gin, (i.e., My name is Jianpeng, but just call me Gin, he said to her with a tough guy look, i.e., Yes, I am the type of guy whose name is a liquor) were just playing in one of the basement-level rooms, a medium-sized storage or electrical supply closet of a room next to the locker room. Last night, he yanked her underwear down over her hips. She was startled. She hadn’t seen it coming. They had developed a habit of taking their breaks in this room, with the main overhead lights out, but the room still slightly lit by the hallway lights. They sat at the table in these maroon plastic-cushioned folding chairs, and took turns telling lies, this was his idea. At the beginning, she didn’t like it. She had wanted to like it, because it sounded like something cool to like, something cool to be good at, but it went against her instincts, and the layers of it made her full of doubt. When Gin said, I didn’t steal five plates, or I once almost killed my best friend in a car accident, Stevie wasn’t sure what the truth was. Usually, there wasn’t even a clear opposite. I’ve never masturbated in a restaurant before, he said last night. Stevie said, then, I’ve never masturbated in front of someone. Which was not right, since this was the truth. She’d simply said the first thing that appeared on her tongue, so that what he had said wouldn’t be the last thing hanging in the warm black air, and she hadn’t had time to switch it to a lie. And what he did, was this: he hooked the fingers of both hands into the belt loops of her pants, and pulled her over. She went.
They were alone in the restaurant, it wasn’t their break after all, it was after they had closed, and everyone else had left, and the two of them were stuck finishing some sidework for the cooks who needed chili peppers cut and string beans cracked, and they were taking a break from that. She straddled him, her foot accidentally catching on his side, and then banging against the table. She knew this was not a good strategy, because once you’re straddling someone, there’s no way to take your pants off—you only do this if you’re wearing a skirt or dress, come on, but he, get this, he grabbed the scissors from the table, the scissors they had been using to cut string beans. At this point, Stevie said, um, because what was he doing. Gin said, honey, that’s all he said, and slid a hand behind her neck and up her nape, as if he were a fortuneteller, handling the crystal ball of her head. He could see into her head, and into her future. Probably. Probably, what he saw, as he held her head, was the swarming mess of her life. He moved his hand down, unbuttoned her pants, unzipped, slipped a hand beneath her underwear, and curved his hand around her, holding her, covering her, and then slowly, started snipping at the crotch of her pants with the scissors.
By now, she was squirming, involuntarily pulsing, shifting against his cupped hand, when she heard the metal clank as he placed the scissors back on the table, pulled his hand out, and then used both hands to rip wider the hole in the crotch of her pants. Through the hole, his hand rubbed against the damp fabric of her underwear. Just one inch, that he kept rubbing, back and forth. She wound her arms around his neck, her head fell forward over his shoulder. His other hand held her right buttock, but it wasn’t enough, she grabbed it, moved it instead to the front of her tank top, over her breast. She felt him grin against her mouth, she imagined the white of his teeth. She wanted the skin of her neck between those flashing teeth—he slid a knuckle shallowly at the entrance of her pussy—how she was loving that word, when she heard it, it was such a wet and naughty word, taut—and how it felt was glossy. A glossy photograph, a streak, translucent pectin covering a fruit-covered tart. He held his knuckle up to her face. It smelled, she guessed; then he suddenly pushed her off him, stood up, nudged the tip of his penis to her right nostril. It felt soft, like a baby’s elbow, blindly moving about, wildly, scrabbling, getting into trouble. You cannot smell this? He demanded, in his contraction-less English.
This occurrence was entirely confusing to her. He was Chinese, wasn’t that meaningful? She only felt disoriented—the meaning, if it was out there floating somewhere, was definitely beyond her grasp. She went home, and sat at the small table in the kitchen. She lay her right cheek down on the cool, hard surface of the Formica tabletop. She felt it, felt shaken up. But why? She was used to having sex in restaurants after hours, with chefs, mainly, who all blurred together in her mind into a softened butter batter of thick, scarred forearms, pierced penises, and neck and chest tattoos. That last one in Santa Monica, had been an ex-frat bro, the surfer California kind, and he had liked to stick his finger into raw mixtures of things in the kitchen and then stick it into her ear.
It was always a bunch of miscreants working in restaurants, herself included, she thought. She thought to herself, I am out of control. What was she even saying, used to having sex in restaurants. What was she even doing here? She had promised herself she wouldn’t work in restaurants anymore. Or, she had at least thought about it. This was what happened in restaurants. Sex messes. She had to get out of it. Get it together. Get something normal, proper, going for herself.
Space 7: A diner
Body Type: A noun, a verb, an action: shape enough
Can you make out the shape of Stevie? Can Stevie make it out? She wanted, at least, to make out the shape of the story, to be able to tell the story of yet another broken heart. Once, Some Guy #Something broke her heart. Who? asks Alyssa, her old friend, her old roommate. Some dude, Stevie said. She has said this so many times. Some guy, some boy, some dude, some dude, she says. Tired, impatient.
But even after so many times, she finds that she still wants to say these things, these words: heart, break, once. She wants to have lived it. She wants to have been alive enough. She wants to have held something out, some thing, held out like an offering in her palm, a true bloody story, held out like a blood-soaked sock. In such a story, Stevie wonders, when does the girl get to turn into something else, instead of the slender-white princess? When does the transformation of the girl into a beast, a predator, something dangerous and fierce, vicious and sharp-edged, get to be not just a turning point, but the storybook ending? When does the girl get to be a great white shark, a crocodile, a wolf, a fox, a grizzly bear, a tiger, forever, not ever wishing to be something less messy? She could do it, she could strike fear, into the soft pulsating hearts of unsuspecting boys and girls, everywhere.
Sitting there in the diner downtown, she looks across the table at Alyssa who is looking down at the menu. There is scaffolding outside, and this scaffolding has clung to this building for a very long time. She thinks of it less as scaffolding, and more as a symbiotic relationship: scaffold and diner. This is the vaguely optimistic way of putting it, instead of putting it the other way—like the relationship between her mother and her father, who have the opposite of a symbiotic relationship, a relationship in which both entities suffer a net loss. But, like the scaffold and diner, her parents’ relationship has existed in this fashion for too long to change. Yet when Stevie was twenty-seven, her mother told her it wasn’t too late, that she could still become an architect. She had looked at her mother then, and felt sorry for her. Perhaps her mother was not completely wrong though, perhaps there is not actually anything in her own life that has existed for so long that it is too late to change.
When Stevie is done with her story, Alyssa scoots out of the booth to go use the restroom in the back. When she returns, as she is sliding back into the booth, Stevie makes sure that she is busy doing something, so she shakes some drops of Tabasco sauce on top of her pile of scrambled eggs. She works on arranging a very even pile of the eggs onto the wedge of toast she has left, and every time one curd or crumble of egg falls off, she carefully places it back on the pile until the shape holds completely steady.