Jen Beagin holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine and has published stories in Juked and Faultline, among other journals and literary magazines. Her novel, Pretend I’m Dead, was published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 2015. She lives in Hudson, New York.
An excerpt from Pretend I’m Dead:
For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.
A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.
She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck. Since he loved getting mail, she sent him a postcard of a Henry Darger drawing featuring little girls with penises. On the back she wrote, “How’s it goin? You’re prolly just hanging around, being rad. I miss you a super ton, dude. I’m like totally lost without you. I fully want to make out with you again.” He loved it when she wrote in her native tongue.
Two weeks later, on her twenty-fourth birthday, she received a large cardboard box in the mail. No return address, but she recognized Mr. Disgusting’s cramped handwriting and felt a flutter in her chest. At last, he’d come to his senses. And, he remembered her birthday. Not bad for an old man. No doubt he sent her something he’d found in the trash, but whatever — she’d take it.
She brought the box to bed and sat with her back against the brick wall. Inside the box were two smaller boxes, one much larger than the other, but each carefully wrapped in the wrinkled maps of her native state. Nice touch. With a red Sharpie he’d drawn a heart around her birthplace, Santa Monica, and another around her hometown, Torrance. She wondered what had possessed him; he definitely wasn’t the heart-drawing type.
Inside the first box was everything she’d ever given him: love letters; purposely bad cowboy poetry; several drawings of her hands and feet; an eight-inch lock of hair she’d meant to donate to Locks of Love; a deck of hand-illustrated German playing cards; a small lump made of Japanese silk thread; and a locket with a skeleton keyhole, the doors of which opened to reveal a photograph of her very beautiful left eye.
The other box contained photographs of her box, photographs for which she’d reluctantly posed atop his bed at the Hawthorne last summer. He’d never showed them to her, but then she’d never asked to see them, either. She’d examined herself with a hand mirror before, but there was something about the pictures that unsettled and sickened her. It was like looking at graphic photographs of her own internal organs.
Happy birthday to me, she thought. Thanks for negating our entire relationship.
Perhaps she was more sentimental than she was willing to acknowledge. Never in a million years would she send someone a box like this.
Before the package, her plans that evening had been to order pho from the Viet Cafe and watch Liquid Sky on VHS. Instead, she opened a bottle of Cabernet, brought it to bed, and emptied the contents of the first box onto the comforter. She picked up a love letter. Her handwriting looked frumpy and reminded her of uncombed hair. She rummaged through the rest of the contents, and that’s when she found the note written on the back of a beaver shot:
My Little Wallaby,
I’m leaving the planet shortly. I apologize for the tragic ending. I always told you I wouldn’t make it past fifty. Please don’t take my departure personally. You know very well it has nothing to do with you. My pain is ancient and I’m tired of carrying it around. That’s all this is.
Enclosed are all the precious gifts you’ve given me. I only wish I could take them with me. I would have left them here, but I couldn’t stand the thought of these vultures picking through it. And I thought it would be nice for you to have both sides of our correspondence. How often does that happen? This way our biographers will have to do less running around.
Please don’t despair. I am toothless, dickless, and twice your age — be happy to be rid of me. You need someone younger and more optimistic, who can fuck you properly and perhaps get you pregnant someday.
Some unsolicited advice on the way out: get the hell out of here. You have no real ties so it’s stupid for you to stay. The reason you’re so comfortable in other people’s homes, Mona, is because you don’t have one. Keep searching.
Go to the desert. I’ve always wanted to live in New Mexico, and I can easily picture you living in Taos, a small town I passed through when I was your age. Why not move there and start over? Rent an adobe casita. Paint some pictures. Join a healthy cult of some kind. Get a guru. Surround yourself with [illegible]. I really want you to be —
The sentence ended there. She flipped the photograph over, hoping he’d finished the thought, but there was only the graphic image of her vag in all its squishy, purple glory.
She didn’t believe he’d actually killed himself. He was too attached to his problems. She’d always maintained that if everyone were forced to throw their problems in the garbage, each person would show up at the dump the following day and sift through any amount of muck to find them again.