My father inherited a small fortune when his mother died, and on my twenty-first birthday he handed me a card with a check inside. I spent a year in Paris after high school and had been living with Dad since then, working at a pottery store and reading my way through a box of moldy French novels and partying at the local bar with college students who wore American- flag bandannas and U.S. Army pants even though they went to a liberal arts school in New England. “Do you dress like that because you support the wars?” I asked one of these boys, after we’d slept together. He laughed with his nose. “Whatever,” he said. I was glad I’d decided not to go to college. Better to use my father’s money to travel than to sit in class with a bunch of morons. And now I had enough money that I didn’t need to make decisions at all. My father beamed as I gazed in astonishment at the four zeroes on his check, proud of his ability to provide for his child. I started driving around the country with a tent and sleeping bag in the back of my car, settling in whatever town could hold my interest for a few months, sometimes doing business transcription or working in coffee shops. I lived frugally to make money that wasn’t mine last. So I was shocked to find myself penniless one day, unable to pay for my sandwich at a deli in Carpinteria. I called my father, and he provided me with a few more years of choicelessness.
It was nearly dark when I hung up the phone. I’d have to spend the night in this maybe seedy, maybe idyllic coastal California town. I went to a bar to find out about campgrounds in the area. A guy looked me up and down when I walked in. Then he started a game of pool. He had thick arms and goldfish tattoos on each wrist; pale, pockmarked cheeks; a dainty nose. His jeans were too short and his legs were stubby. I was not attracted to his appearance. But I was attracted to him. I drank three pints of Guinness and watched him win four games. His brown eyes were open wide, so he could watch his shot and stare at me at the same time. His look reduced me, not unpleasantly, to sex. When I got up from my stool to walk to the bathroom, I felt the cotton of my underpants shifting over my buttocks, my asshole tingling and contracting as if I were lying facedown in the sun after swimming in icy water.
When he walked to the back patio, I followed him out and asked for a cigarette. The arbor above our heads was interlaced with broken Christmas lights. They flickered dizzyingly as he lit a Camel for me. I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I winced with each inhale; tobacco is one of the few drugs I hate. “You know you’re sexy, thank god,” he said. “So we don’t need to talk about it all night.” I was wearing a short skirt with ripped black panty hose and a tight tank top with a ladybug embroidered over my left nipple. My breasts are small and my legs are short, but I have a perky ass and symmetrical features. Jared was right. I love my body. I like my face, too. It’s not that I’m a knockout, but you don’t have to be a knockout to be desired. My appearance is one thing I don’t worry about. “I don’t like talking, anyway,” I said. Jared dipped a key into a small baggie, held the white powder under my nose.
After the bar closed, I hopped on the handlebars of his bike. Jared stopped short in front of a turning car and I flew forward. The heels of my boots weren’t sturdy enough to support the impact of my fall. My ankles twisted as I spiraled to the ground, landing on my back with my feet crossed. Jared grinned as he helped me up. “Took yourself a tumble, didn’t ya darlin’?” I touched my face. Smooth, dry. I straddled the front wheel and hopped back onto the handlebars. His breath warmed my neck as he raised himself off the bike seat to hurtle us through a thicket of fog-softened headlights. When I woke up in his bed the next morning, it looked like someone had sewn a piece of midnight blue fabric onto my hip with yellow thread. Jared shook his pillow out of its case, filled the case with ice and held it to my side. “I like you so much,” he whispered in my ear. He caught the back of my neck in his teeth. Icy waves lapped at my hip. His teeth tickled my skin. I got dizzy, free of thought.
I stayed with Jared for the next few days. We stumbled into a stranger’s party and danced until dawn and skinny-dipped in the ocean under a huge orange moon and set out on bikes with beer and sandwiches, riding equestrian trails through woods that led to sea cliffs, taking breaks to have sex in eucalyptus groves. Here was an answer to the question of what to do with my life.
I found a room for rent in a tiny, lopsided cottage occupied by a forty-year-old bachelor who had blown off his right hand in a drunken fireworks accident. Our bedrooms shared a thin wall. I wondered if Ron was always sheepish or if the accident had made him that way. The rent was negligible. I got the impression he wanted someone around, just in case. A week after I moved in, I peeked into the garage that we were not allowed to use. Piles and piles of lace-up shoes. Ron only wore slip-ons. The accident had happened years ago, but maybe he was still hoping to learn. Or to find someone to do the tying for him. In any case, I wasn’t worried about finding a job anytime soon. The money I had left from my dad felt like a lot to someone who had never really thought about money.
So when I wasn’t with Jared, I had plenty of time to indulge my recent obsession: the torture of so-called terror suspects, meaning mostly poor Muslim men whom corrupt warlords handed over to the United States in exchange for bounties. Not that you could talk like that in public or people would think you were not sufficiently distressed over 9/11. A handful of lunatics succeeded in changing the way regular people thought about sadistic violence. Torture was now acceptable. You needed a measured rationale to justify being against it—it was ineffective; it was a recruiting tool for the terrorists; it made it more likely that captured American soldiers would be mistreated. I learned these reasons because I had to. If I said, even at a bar in a liberal town in Southern California, that my opposition to torture was based on a feeling—the feeling that it’s wrong for one human being to inflict as much pain as possible on another human being—then I was pitied for being idealistic and sentimental. But if the problem with sentimentality is that it wastes our need to feel on false, trivial tropes—a Nazi who weeps at the opera but is unmoved at the gas chamber—then wouldn’t the solution be for us to feel strongly about real stuff instead, for pure, uncomplicated emotion to be aroused not by baby animals on YouTube but by ordinary people in pain?
The first act of sadistic violence I witnessed was a crow pecking a baby bat to death in my backyard. I gave the bat a funeral at which I read a memorial poem (“I will never forget you little bat / It was so mean of the crow to do that”) and then had to stay home from school for two days because I couldn’t stop crying. I was probably six. My mother was worried; my father was proud. It was from him that I learned to anguish over mass suffering I could do nothing about. Throughout my childhood, he spent several hours a day reading terrible news stories, which he would talk about throughout dinners, rides to and from school, trips to the grocery store. My mother would tell him not to disturb a child; my father would say privileged people not wanting to be disturbed was the cause of the problem. Since my father never did anything with his knowledge except get angry and then depressed, I thought my mother might have a point. But after she abandoned us for a pretty dimwit, I sided with Dad: My mother was frivolous; my father’s angst was purposeful and important. I filled my adolescence with books about slavery, the Holocaust, the Stasi, the Gulag, the Chinese oppression of Tibet, the Gaza Strip. I used to wonder what I would do if I lived in a country that imprisoned people in massive, indiscriminate sweeps (Rumsfeld’s leaflets “falling like snow” over Afghanistan, promising “wealth and power beyond your dreams” in exchange for turning in supposed enemy combatants) and tortured them without ever charging them with crimes (the legal memos with graphic descriptions of waterboarding, stress positions, beatings to inflict maximum distress without causing organ failure or death). After Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo, I knew what I would do: feel rage, shame, disgust, loneliness, helplessness, sorrow, despair, great and debilitating hatred for everyone who did not also feel these things.
A young woman from PeaceByPeace knocked on my door in Carpinteria one afternoon, asking if I had a minute for peace. What she really wanted was money, but at least she was out doing something. So I tried canvassing, too. But I hated asking strangers for money that I wasn’t even convinced helped all that much. PeaceByPeace lobbied politicians to support their initiatives. I had no faith in politics; the first presidential election I voted in was decided by a single American who happened to be on the Supreme Court. And even at PeaceByPeace human rights was not a popular cause. The fastest way to get people to give—other canvassers advised me—was to make an economic argument against Bush’s policies, something I couldn’t have done even if I wanted to. You had to slip in the human rights stuff later, once you’d hooked them—the same way that, if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t want to start off with a diatribe against torture and indefinite detention or you could turn off a lot of potential readers. Maybe you could slip the political stuff in later, after you’d made a particular Muslim character really sympathetic, perhaps in an unlikely feminist way, like he collected bits of charcoal to make rudimentary writing implements for poor, oppressed schoolgirls. Then you could have him detained and tortured and readers might care.
I understood the method. I just couldn’t abide it. After the twentieth door was slammed in my face as soon as I mentioned humane treatment for so-called enemy combatants, I quit. Reading the news alone was less depressing than trying to do something about it.
I met a few girls in Carpinteria that I liked to go out and drink with, but I couldn’t imagine becoming really close with them. They weren’t up against anything, having spent their lives running between the mountains and the sea. When I complained to one of them about how difficult it was just to be a decent person, she suggested I go to the beach, listen to the ocean, and “soak up the inspiration.” Southern California is a great place to soak up ethereal nouns.
But Jared suffered. He was real. He read David Foster Wallace with a dictionary, taking notes in a journal. He read the way he did everything: desperately, driven by too much need for things to be too different from what they were. He was the only person—aside from my father—whom I could talk to about the war on terror (another ethereal noun). We had feelings, not arguments—only an insane person could argue intellectually about something like torturing and jailing people for years without ever charging them with a crime—which of course made us ineffective political thinkers. Jared read the newspaper like it was a book, looking not for facts but for stories: What was happening to regular people? It’s hard not to be compelled by suffering when you’re suffering yourself. But if I was paralyzed by my feelings, Jared was at war with his. Alcohol was the quickest way to win.
He was the rhythm guitarist for a mediocre rockabilly band that played the local bars most weekends; he made his living selling drugs. He did drop-offs at dawn, midnight, noon. Couldn’t afford to disappoint his clientele. Carpinteria was a small town with a lot of dealers. Susan was my introduction to this clientele, a few months after I’d settled down in Carp. She was petite and blond and full- bosomed, wearing red lipstick and a tight sweater, standing next to us at the bar one night, demanding that Jared buy her a drink. “I’m broke,” she said, sticking out her lower lip. Jared took a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her. I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We went outside and danced to the Cure, which was blasting from speakers on the back patio. Susan found us, shimmied against Jared, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and took long, dramatic drags as she told me how far back she and Jerrie go, that she’s been stealing his cigarettes at the end of a long night for years. When she went inside to get another drink, I told Jared to stop flirting with that whore, hating my stereotypically competitive tone, hating him for making me assume it.
“Suze? You’re trippin’. I fucked her once. But that was years ago. Stop trippin’, girl.”
To Drunk Jared I was just one more needy female, as in “Woman, you are a handful” and “Girl, get off my back.” He turned away from me. I turned on my heels. Pride dragged me toward home. After two blocks, I remembered that I was clacking my way to a dark apartment where I’d hiccup and sob into my pillow, trying not to wake my depressed roommate. But when I got back to the bar, Jared was gone. I searched wide-eyed, clutching the sides of my dress, forcing myself not to break into a run.
“Are you looking for the guy in the red shirt?” the bartender asked me. Yes, I was, that adorable red shirt with the bluebird over the left breast pocket. “He took off. He was really trashed. Better let him sleep it off.” When Jared called me the next afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet at a diner, I told him that I would never see him again. He left a present on my windowsill every day for the next week—earrings, chocolates, flowers. Stupid things, the perfect things. Eventually I agreed to let him take me to a Wilco concert in L.A. “I’ll be your designated driver,” he said, and drank only Pepsi at the show. Afterward, he drove us back to his house and we jumped on his trampoline under the stars, Santa Ana winds somersaulting down the piney mountains. He fed me avocado-and-tomato sandwiches in his bed. We had sex three times and slept entangled till noon.
One night, I had two orgasms and he had none. I kept trying, desperate for proof of his attraction to me, reminding him of how he used to come so quickly, too quickly. “Because you were brand new,” he said, yawning into my hair. The next day, I bought a pair of lace-up, knee-high boots for two hundred bucks. When Jared saw me wearing them, he said, “Where’d you get those boots? The Sexy Store?” I cringed; he knew I was trying to please him. The first time I wore the boots, the right heel came off in chunks on the dance floor. I left a trail of rubber everywhere I went.
And it turned out Jared didn’t give a shit about my sexy boots. He cared about seeing me from every possible angle, under the brightest lights, his nose an inch from my skin. “But—” I’d protest as he parted my legs or rolled me onto my stomach. “Come on,” he’d say. “Let me see you.” Attraction was access to knowledge that could not be gained from any other kind of interaction. There was nothing to hold back.
Hannah Tennant-Moore‘s work has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in The Best Buddhist Writing. Wreck and Order is her first novel.
Wreck and Order (Hogarth) is available February 9th, 2016.