Excerpted from INCURABLE GRAPHOMANIA, by Anna Krivolapova, via APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL PRESS. Available now.
I deserve one good bender, I think.
I call an ex as I walk through the King of Prussia Mall looking for a bikini and new clothes.
“Meet me in Cape May tonight.”
“Why, your parents at the house? We’ll stay at mine, it’s always empty.”
Brett always says his parents are off hunting somewhere in the Pine Barrens or West Virginia. It sounds like a lie. My guess? They’re in rehab, or that nude swinger resort in Berkeley Springs.
“Sounds like you can’t talk right now.”
“That’s right. See you at work, Riley.”
Brett milks my neutered name whenever his wife is in the room. There’s some kind of Kuleshov effect happening. Riley’s sexless cable knit Waspy qualities evaporate on the boot of a fictional Mercer County steelworker who wears it better. I want to go to the Piercing Pagoda and make the Romanian girl holding the gun give me therapy. I would let her riddle me with holes if she’d let me tell her about how I came home to a typed letter from my fiance saying something along the lines of I got a girl pregnant, it’s over, you have one month to move out.
“It didn’t hit me while I was clearing out the apartment, renting a storage unit, or quitting my job. It hit me while I was parked in front of Wawa looking at photos of their shotgun wedding. She wore a sari to the courthouse. There was jewelry coming out of her nose and a red dot on her forehead.”
“X marks the spot.” The Romanian holds the piercing gun between my eyebrows. “But if you’re going to the beach, you shouldn’t get a new piercing. It could get infec—”
I walk away before she starts on infections or pus or anything that could bum me out. I go into Victoria’s Secret and let the lady with measuring tape around her neck slide her hands around my ribs. It feels nice. She smells like tuberose and baby powder and feels sorry for me. She gives me a pink striped card with my name and bra size on it. Riley, 32c. My new business card.
I drive across the Whitman Bridge with my pink shopping bags riding shotgun. South Jersey’s open farms, devilish woods, and pine-ringed swamps make my head spin. The air smells so good downwind of the Pine Barrens, where honeysuckle and chicory grow lush on the side of the highway. Nothing like the sulfur-ammonia bouquet I was living in. It’s getting dark and half the cows are sitting down. Rain, maybe. I stop at Heritage Dairy for a cookies and cream milkshake. They call it the Holstein Shake after the black and white cows. The eternal schema for all cows. I wish they were all Holsteins. The brown cows remind me of India, of corpses floating through the Ganges and Graham’s new wife.
There’s no reception on Route 47 and I turn on FM radio. Beach Boys, Eagles, Alan Parsons Project, Creed, and Don Henley ride with me on the last stretch to Exit Zero. The DJ keeps dimming the volume to sing over the songs with his own mid-Atlantic interpretation of the lyrics. He sounds tanked.
I look for a place to park down the block after I finish unloading. The roads here are narrow and very few of the Victorian houses have driveways. The code to the lockbox is still grandpa’s birth year. A smart thief would drive out here in April and try every house’s lockbox starting with 1-9-2-0. I walk around the first floor using my phone as a flashlight before shutting the curtains and pushing the kitchen’s dimmer up a centimeter.
I don’t throw all the lights on like a madwoman. One lamp at a time. Sometimes, the smallest bit of candlelight is just enough. My grandmother was paranoid about electrical fires. She’d walk around the house with her nose in the air, hallucinating burnt plastic. She’d unplug the refrigerator at night and spoil the food. I can hear it, she contested. I can hear it trying to burn the house down. It’s cold, quiet, and wants to burn us alive. I always thought there was something to it. She dislocated my shoulder a time or two when I was really small but they always clicked it back into place at Cape Regional. I always took her advice. She told me to buy a gray sedan, dark and nondescript, and to keep it clean with a trunkful of emergency. She was dying when she told me about the pink motel. She could have told me sooner. Every woman needs a break now and then.
The warm yellow light makes this house look just like it did 10, 20 years ago, when I ran through it with tiny sandy feet. It still smells like old wood, upholstery, and Grandpa. They never ended up renovating this place after he died. I usually sleep on the couch because the house gives me a haunted feeling that gets worse the higher up I go. The second and third floors scare me at night.
The mildew smell is overpowering and I go get the tent I keep in my trunk. The night is foggy and silent and every single house I pass is familiar to me. I start to feel hopeful. I pop the tent open in the middle of the living room carpet and crawl inside to sleep.
Tents make me feel safe and swaddled but I always wake up with an ache in my shoulders and lower back. I carry my bags to the third floor in the morning. I rush through the second floor— past my grandparent’s bedroom, the pink bathroom with the big scale, and the two frilly bedrooms with one window each. On the third floor, everything is decorated with pale green and white accents. One of the closets opens to a staircase up to the widow’s walk.
As a 7-year old, I desperately wanted a picture of myself in the widow’s walk dressed up like Rapunzel. My grandpa tried, walking out into the front yard, crossing the street backwards until he hit the sidewalk, but there were too many trees obscuring me. The dense foliage surrounding the widow’s walk makes it feel like a sanctuary, a princess’ invisible tower. I can sit here and watch the street, the hotel, the boardwalk, and the ocean, all framed by Victorian gingerbread woodwork that costs a fortune to repair. One of the windows facing Megan’s and the hotel has been broken since I was a child. The neighbors can’t see the damage behind our sycamore tree so no one’s bothered to fix it.
There’s a key to the wine cellar somewhere on this ring. I try every one— the oldest looking one first. Not it. It’s old and big and heavy with variegated teeth like a family photo. The cellar door is outside in the alleyway, parallel to the ground. If left open, an easy way for a child to get hurt. That mistake has caused some expensive hospital visits and big fights. The door unlocks stiff and crisp like it hasn’t been touched in years. It opens up to dust and bikes and bags of charcoal. The wooden wine rack has been rotting down here, stone cold forgotten by everyone but the ocean air. I pick out three reds and crawl back upstairs. I try not to clink the glass bottles against our stone walkway and lay them on the budding tulips. Don’t want to rouse the neighbors. There are six bottle openers in this house and they all have a tiny layer of rust. Every salt shaker is compacted with moisture.
Headlights sweep across the first floor. A Tahoe parks across the street, full of kids who sound tired but excited. I like how the insects start to get loud again this time of year; I miss them all winter long. They add a texture, a fuzz, a volume to the night. I enjoy the sounds of bugs and kids from my favorite bedroom in the house. Two walls of shelves fragrant with the signature lignin-vanillin scent of old books that I can read on the wicker futon by the window. A porcelain sink juts out of the wall near the bed. It feels out of place until you need a palm full of water in the middle of the night.
There’s an empty wine bottle and three beer cans piled into a clear acrylic plastic box on the ground. A foolproof system I’ve developed for protecting floors and drinks. If something spills, it spills in the box. When I’m being disgusting and desperate I can tilt the box into my mouth. Last night it accumulated a wine-beer mixture, bitter tannins floating in carbonated hops that dry my tongue out.
I get up at noon and take my coffee on the front porch, looking across the street to Megan’s house. Another Jorgenson & Jorgenson heiress. J&J is actually a bunch of Smiths and Wilsons and Grants in a trench coat. I’m a Grant, she’s a Wilson. Our grandparents bought Victorian beach houses on the same block so they could spend their summers together. Or keep an eye on each other. One summer her grandpa started to cut newspaper into strips and build little boxes. I saw him cross the street to the hotel, presenting a tiny paper cube with six versions of Colin Powell’s face to a confused tourist in cutoffs. A few years later, a financial advisor convinced him to sell most of his assets, including the Victorian mansion.
I don’t eat until sundown to get my money’s worth off the bar’s beach town prices. After four beers I turn my book upside down for attention. It works. I don’t want to get into his car or show him where I live, but I know a spot.
Brett’s parents’ house was built in the 90s and has a clean, spacious kitchen, stocked with every cooking gadget, sauce, and spice under the sun. The spices have been in direct sunlight for years and get a little musty, but taste fine. Especially when I lean over and deglaze the pan with a splash of my Grenache. He’s impressed. His hairline is receding and his biceps are bigger than his head and his rimless glasses mean he doesn’t get much. He doesn’t understand how. His ugly glasses make me feel like a candle in a dessert. A torched brûlée. He’s going to say and do and feel anything the moment calls for. He’s already living in the future where he’s telling the story of tonight. Before I serve him dinner he runs his hand under the string of Brett’s mom’s apron. I kick him out around 2 AM and sleep in Brett’s room alone.
It got cold overnight. I go through his closet for a jacket that’ll look good on me. Perfectly oversized. He has hunting fatigues and neon orange beanies and waders and fishing poles and woah that’s a long gun. I carry it downstairs under my arm and lay it on the couch for a moment. There are boogie boards and beach towels and umbrellas in the basement. I take one of the umbrellas apart and go upstairs with the case. Striped white and red Tommy Bahama. It fits the gun perfectly. I put the key back in the lockbox and bike half an hour home with the gun slung across my chest, weighing me down at turns. The shore was silent as a beach of seagull feathers, a Jimenez poem. 60 degrees and foggy. Morning dew, silence, and stray cats. The only time I’ve seen cats around here is at dawn, when they run back and forth, dunes to dumpsters. They never take the boardwalk. The foggy salt air makes me think about how I’ve never tried an oyster. It’s a risk. Someone could see me grimace, hate it, not understand it, let it win. I’d be relegated to the circle of hell with people who peel grapes and wash chicken. I could try one alone in my bedroom where no one could see, but what would be the point? An oyster is a celebration: champagne, caviar, fireworks, and four inch heels.
I sleep for six more hours until I put on a silk scarf and red lipstick and bike to the fish market. I call on one of the Serbian fishmongers behind the counter and ask for a batch of fresh oysters. I kick myself for the signifier when I see the Serb smirk. Now he’s going to dig to the bottom of the bushel and give me the oldest, ripest, sickest oysters. He’s going to trick me, give me a handful of clams at the bottom of my bag. The ones you see licking their chops on TV, old and fat and swelling out of their shells.
I stop at Acme and buy Castelvetrano olives, pearled couscous, and a lemon. Then Collier’s for white wine and a case of Narragansett. The beer is heavy so I walk my bike the two blocks home.
A second batch of kids and parents are milling around Megan’s porch and the street. Some kind of career-focused summer camp, I guess. Kids who get good grades and have never gotten their asses kicked by anyone but their parents. Their brows knit up as I pass by with my oysters and beer.
I spread out on the porch and crack open a Narragansett. I get a little high and it makes me pensive and anxious and I intricate myself into the neuroses of everyone I’m spying on. I read the kids’ and parents’ faces like a TV special.
The cast of characters:
Tall hairy kid with a slight hunchback: Quick goodbye hugs with his dad. One suitcase.
Shirtless ginger kid: already rearing to go for a swim. He’ll be so disappointed by the cold.
Short, chubby mixed girl: Suffocating white mom with gray curly hair and a silk scarf around her neck. Her black dad is tall and bald and friendly to everyone. They probably still have sex.
Maybe this is her chance to finally get some sleep.
Chaperone 1: Drew Barrymore’s character in Donnie Darko. Add 15 years.
Chaperone 2: Super energetic Latino with a high and tight haircut and motor mouth. The only person helping everyone with their bags.
All the black and Mexican kids’ parents are so proud of them. They’re taking group photos in front of the house. Someone’s frizzy mom already bought an I HEART CAPE MAY sweatshirt. Maybe she was just cold. It’s overcast here until Memorial Day. Through Memorial Day, really, but the bodies make it warmer. The kinetic beehive of umbrellas on the beach. They’re so cheap for renting this off season. The kids can’t even swim.
I get bored of them all and go upstairs.
I sit in the widow’s walk and watch Megan’s house. The ginger kid is rubbing sunblock on his chest on the front porch. Back for more. Maybe the water isn’t as bad as I thought. I throw on a bathing suit, put blush on my cheeks, and leave with a towel, novel, snacks, and beer.
The ginger’s name is Sam. Or Sean. He’s 17 and sufficiently impressed by a case of beer and a hand on his thigh. A forbidden nature preserve sends him over the edge. I lead him to slaughter in the Endangered Tern Nesting Area.
“Are you sure it’s okay for the birds to be eating Cap’n Crunch?”
“They love it.” I throw another handful to the seagulls and Endangered Terns. “Let’s go find some ghost crabs once the sun goes down. It’s fun to shine a flashlight and watch them scatter.”
“The first day of the RLE conference is tomorrow. Raytheon Leaders in Education. Maybe you can come.”
“You know where to find me.”
The sun is setting behind Colliers and I buy a 6 pack connected by that plastic 888 that chokes turtles. I rip one off at a time on my walk towards the playground. I rip #3 off the plastic and drink it on the swing. When it feels empty enough I smash it on my forehead and drop it to the ground. I keep swinging. I drop my arms behind me, leaning back, thighs clinging to the rubber seat, feet dragging against the ground. The momentum of the swing’s chains swing me back and forth, my hair and arms dragging upside down against wood chips. It feels like the ocean.
It occurs to me in a shock of joy that the ocean is less than a mile away. I’m so happy to be drunk and walking alone by myself at night. I can’t think of anywhere else I could do this but supersterile Victorian Cape May. There’s a big helicopter that beams infrared and scoops up vagrants, bums, criminals, and undesirables into a crab net and releases them over the Delaware Bay, Pinochet-style.
The local public servants give every homeless person they see a $200 hotel voucher and a bus ticket to Atlantic City.
I check on the ghost crabs that live in the cracks between the big wet rocks of the jetty. They scatter as soon as I appear. They’ve seen the Old Bay banner plane flying over crab eaters opening beers with their Old Bay keychains on their Old Bay beach towels. I see one pinch my foot, coming for his reparations. I let him have it. My reflexes are gone and I’m too drunk to feel his pincer. If he wants a toe, he can take a toe, I’ve got nine more lives.
I leave my clothes in the lifeguard roost and go for a swim. I sink my chin down into the water when the beach cleaner drives by in his big noisy truck. The ocean is cold and winds me and I could drown but I’m not so lucky.
I take my coffee on the front porch. I tense up when Sean waves towards me. He walks over and reminds me about the RLE conference.
“It’s in the convention center on the boardwalk.”
“A block away from the arcade. I know it.”
“Are you coming?”
“Am I allowed?”
Sean gives me another girl’s lanyard. She has IBS and wants to stay home and watch cable. The barcode works and I’m in. Every tenth person in here is probably clocking me for a fake high schooler like they’re watching a Lifetime movie. Maybe it’s just hangover anxiety. My lanyard’s strap is decorated with the logos of NASA, NOAA, Samsung, McGraw Hill, Treyarch, and Anheuser-Busch. I want to show someone my ID and get an orange wristband but can’t blow my cover. We walk around the convention center collecting lanyards, pens, drawstring backpacks, and koozies. We take fistfuls of candy while a chubby DOD contractor pitches an internship building satellites in Baltimore. We try astronaut food from a tube and spit it out into SpaceX napkins. I follow Sean into a room full of computer screens and gaming consoles. The walls are lined with thin bands of neon light, like laser tag. A girl scans our lanyards as we come in. She’s wearing more makeup than me and looks good in khakis and I want to leave.
“Two to a system. ”
We sit down and I wipe the fingerprints off my controller before pressing start.
The game has four levels, each in a different location:
Practice: Antarctica. Sporadic targets running across an open white plain.
Beginner: Middle Eastern or Saharan desert. Targets popping out from a row of bases. Intermittent sandstorms blinding the shooter. I looked around and saw that most kids were getting weeded out by the landmines. Sean figured out that you can quickly win this round if you change over to night mode and power up to some green goggles. The Desert Storm strategy.
Intermediate: A heavily wooded warzone on a mountain. Enemy combatants growling in something Eastern European, sneaking through the forest. Their grenades launch avalanches that’ll kill you if you don’t run up the mountain fast enough.
Expert: A busy city with a mix of modern architecture and old limestone buildings that look like museums. A number of civilians walking around at a brisk European pace, weaving through streets and fountains and squares and cafes. One of the Expert level targets is a red ballerina. She’s easy to find because she circles the square in a 3 minute loop like the rest of the NPCs. She walks down the marble steps of the grand pillared theater in a red leotard, pink tights, and white scrunchie. Shooting her gets you 700 points, but there’s a catch; every time you shoot her, your power ups disable for 30 seconds. Your camouflage stops working, rendering you visible to all other snipers for 30 seconds without being able to fire back. The only way to win this round is to let her run around Rome/Paris/Milan/Moscow until the very end of the round.
I get bored of watching Sean beat every level twice and go get a wristband. When the bartender is putting on my paper corsage I notice the underside of my arm is pale as a fishbelly. I alternate drink stations until a teenager taps me on the shoulder and asks if I’d like to try out a VR headset.
“Would you like to be an astronaut, pilot, or submarine officer?
Astronauts are corny and the idea of a submarine makes me feel short of breath. “Pilot.”
He straps me in, pulling my hair a few times, jostling my drink. “You’ll watch a three minute loop of a pilot taking off and striking. Remember, you don’t have a controller, it’s only VR, so just relax and watch. Don’t worry about pressing any buttons or making any moves.”
The plane takes off and I start to get dizzy and grab onto the kid for balance. He’s so skinny. Maybe I’m holding on to a folding chair with a sweatshirt thrown over it. The pilot strikes the center of a mountain and the bomb lands in a big wet slosh of magma that covers my windshield. I reach for the wipers. I touch someone’s cold hands. I take the goggles off, trying not to think of what my hair looks like, or the inevitable pink line on my forehead.
“How was it?” he asks, wiping my headset off with rubbing alcohol. I feel a little offended that he’s doing that in front of me. I get my fifth drink and leave to go watch the ocean from the veranda. It’s the warmest day yet. I hop the fence, land in sand, and start taking my shorts off. I fold my clothes into a pillow and settle in for a tan. My last drink is starting to hit me and my purse spills onto the sand. I reach for my lipstick, that classic little MAC bullet that feels so good in my hand. I draw a red circle around my belly button as a plane flies above me. I shoot him with my finger a few times and fall asleep.
The beach is the only place where you can walk around with a bathing suit under your clothes all day, start drinking at 11, nap it off on the sand, and go about your evening.
At home I arrange the oysters in a circle on ice, squeeze lemon on their bellies, and tweeze the stray citrus seeds off the plate with chopsticks. I iron my hair like Veronica Lake and draw a beauty mark on my cheek like Marilyn. I dance around the kitchen until I catch my reflection. The beauty mark looks stupid and I smudge a brown line across my face wiping it off. It took 40 minutes to do my makeup. Liner from the inner corner to the outer, highlight on my cheek and brow bones, coral blush that would look clownish in daylight. Red lips, fake lashes, high contrast. Grandma’s red silk bathrobe. Angelina * Monica * Helen of Troy. Drunk in a kitchen built in 1841. I thought of the panopticon, the boredom, the suffocation, a woman would feel in this room 100 years ago. I’ll be throwing up into 200 year old pipes tomorrow morning and be freer than a woman dropping belladonna in her eye while a slave gives birth in the little house behind ours. The one we sold in the 80s. Some woman from Texas moved in and had a stroke while gardening 10 years later. I’ve never seen anyone go in there but the little backyard skunk.
My ice is melting and my olives are starting to sweat but I feel nice and drunk and go upstairs to the widow’s walk to watch the kids across the street. They’re having a party with strobe lights in their living room that illuminate their silhouettes identically. Brett’s gun fits perfectly in the hole between the screen and the window frame. Just a thin little nose on such a long gun.
Sean walks outside onto the porch. More kids follow him and turn to face the house, leaning back against the Victorian gingerbread railing, pushing against its antique limits. A camera flash goes off and my trigger finger follows. The bullets sound distant, like they’re coming from the ocean. I empty the gun into their gingerbread railing and watch kids fall onto the porch. Horizontal and parallel in matching sweatshirts.
A cop asks me questions an hour later. He sees my melted ice and submerged oysters and cried-off makeup and believes I’ve been stood up.
“It’s never happened to me before. Maybe he heard the shooting and got spooked.”
“You think he’s a witness?”
Any name I give him, real or fake, could cause trouble.
“I met him the old fashioned way. On the boardwalk. Never got his name.”
“Ma’am, did you notice your refrigerator is unplugged?”
The cop leaves without even checking upstairs. I think he felt the ghosts too. After he’s gone I blow kisses to the ghosts and give them nicknames. Shelly, Hadrian, Marlon, and Pearl. I thank them all. I pour Malbec into four glasses and set them around the long dinner table in their honor. I crawl across the oriental carpet, Shelly’s goblet in my hand, raised to the heavenly hosts of 36 Congress St. Too drunk to walk upstairs, I crawl into my tent and sleep in there for the night.
I take my coffee on the front porch. Five of the kids, including Sean, are wrapped up in blankets on Megan’s wicker. I go back inside.
Flour, butter, sugar, salt.
There’s rust on this pastry cutter and no one at the kitchen table. I imagine Hadrian sitting there, grumpy and hungover with an Irish coffee, watching me bake. I make a batch of sugar cookies with cinnamon-vanilla icing and carry the tray over to Megan’s. I’ve done this before, when her aunt got married to a Libertarian.
I set the tray down on the coffee table. Sean says hi with his eyes.
Drew looks solemn and nods her head, charging herself up for a courteous remark about the cookies. I’m nervous under her silence and accidentally call her the nickname I’ve given her. She frowns, unfamiliar. I catch my reflection in the windowpane behind her head and for a moment I feel a painful clarity. Now I’m Mr. Wilson, the senile neighbor bearing unwanted gifts, only tolerated for my proximity and wealth. If she’s Drew Barrymore in Donnie Darko, I’m Drew Barrymore in Grey Gardens. I cross the street back home and sleep for 12 hours.
Flags are at half mast but stores are open. The French bakery was bought out by Bulgarians a few years ago. They kept the name and the glass case of familiar pastries, but put in a refrigerator full of farmer’s cheese, cured meats, and pierogies all labeled in Cyrillic. I bought a batch of walnut sticky buns and two croissants. I thought of the first time Graham joined me on this early morning breakfast mission. We held hands in the foggy morning, taking the shortcut behind the seafood restaurants, poking each other every time we saw an alley cat or Eastern European lifeguard on her walk of shame. They never took the boardwalk either.
They stopped importing lifeguards to the East Coast, it’s all locals in the roosts again. I wonder what that means for the culture.
I fry an egg and put it between the two croissants. The ghosts’ wine is giving the dining room an acidic smell. The house feels barren. I think I scared them away. The piece of folded cardboard stabilizing one leg of the dinner table is disintegrating into the oriental carpet. Paranoia is setting in. I change the combination on the lockbox to 6879, a year that hasn’t happened and never will. I drive 40 minutes down Garden State Parkway and turn off when I see the perfect swamp. I throw Brett’s gun into the reeds and watch it sink into methane-scented water, imagining it was a spoon falling into a cup of gritty black tea.
— Anna Krivolapova’s poems and short stories have appeared in APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Hobart, Expat, Maximus, Tragickal, C22, and Road Dog Books. You can find her on Twitter @AnaKrivolapova.