Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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On the car radio: Innocent people dead in missile strikes. A missing plane, feared hijacked and crashed with more than two hundred people aboard. Nothing on radar, no radio transmission or distress call — the plane had disappeared, and the only evidence of its existence was the people waiting for it to land.
There was more: An ethnic minority forced out of their village without water or food. The suicide of a famous comedian, a man who’d made me laugh, made us all laugh, consistently. You could count on him. His assistant found him hanging in the bedroom. I was not so naive that I didn’t understand the tether between sadness and humor. But why couldn’t funny win?
A white SUV cut me off, and I had to slam on the brakes. I switched lanes and drove up beside the SUV. The driver’s hair was a blond pouf and her sunglasses covered half her face and she was on the phone. The only part of her touching the steering wheel was the inside of her left wrist. I thought, I don’t know how the world holds itself together. How it doesn’t fly apart every second of every day.
I was twenty-six, working full time at the Bagelry in suburban Chicago, avoiding the future. The future did not seem like anything you could count on. Even in suburban Chicago, where Public Works employees smiled while scraping up roadkill, people were unhappy, desperate to convince themselves of something good. Desperate.
One morning at work there was a woman and two kids, a little boy in a stroller and a girl in pink cowboy boots. The girl kept puffing her cheeks and blowing out air as if she were a balloon.
The woman asked me, “Can I get two everythings and a blueberry?”
“I wanna chockachip!” the girl yelled.
The woman ignored the girl. I asked about schmears and drinks. The girl repeated herself. My God, to want something as much as she wanted that bagel! The woman handed me a card, but it wasn’t going through.
“It’s saying ‘denied,’ ” I had to tell her.
“We just paid that one. . . .”
The girl had taken her brother’s chubby arm and was tapping him in the face with it. Every time she made his arm hit his face, she said, “Stop hitting yourself.” His expression went from confused to worried to angry. I smiled at the little girl. She increased the force with which she was making her brother hit himself.
“Not working,” I said. “You have cash?”
The boy’s eyes squeezed shut, and he screamed. He screamed for all subjugated younger siblings on all planets in all the yet-undiscovered galaxies. The woman whipped around and grabbed the girl’s arm.
“Emily Lee, stop it right now. Do you want to see Grandma?”
The girl folded her hands together and became still. It wasn’t clear whether seeing Grandma was a bribe or a threat. Her brother continued crying while looking around for someone to feel sorry for him. When he didn’t see anyone, he shut up.
“Could you spot me the bagels today, please,” — she peered at my name tag — “Marissa? I’m good for it. You see me in here all the time.”
It was true. But I couldn’t just give out free bagels. This was a bagel enterprise. The whole point of my job was to sell bagels. I told her as much.
“Thanks for nothing, cold sore.”
I had a cold sore at the corner of my mouth that I was sensitive about.
The guy in the green suit behind her said, “Let me get her order.” He was tall and very thin.
“Look at that! A person with some decency,” the woman said.
He gestured at her kids, who were poking each other. “It takes a village.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, embracing the man. She hugged him around the waist, then hugged his head with her palms. By now everyone was watching. “You’re an everyday American hero.” She actually said those words.
And then — and then! — the store broke into goddamn applause. I couldn’t believe it. The two ladies in burkas at the corner table, the hungover college couple, the people heading to work: they all stood and gave the man a standing ovation.
That spring, the going rate for a standing ovation from a roomful of strangers was $3.28. That’s what I mean by desperate.
My sister, Bonnie, ten months older than me, lived in New York City, where she was an assistant editor at Elle. People sometimes thought we were twins, which I took as a compliment and she took as an insult. She was more naturally attractive by at least a whole number. She carried an eyelash curler in her purse and owned an ionic diffuser attachment for her hair dryer that cost eighty dollars. Even her hair was well edited. She was always on me to go back to school, finish my degree, get a boyfriend or a better job, travel to Europe or South America, do something, and when I told her I was fine and that maybe she was talking more to herself than to me, she recommended I watch a TED talk about vulnerability.
I wasn’t lonely. I worked forty hours a week, meeting all kinds of people, and I had Meister.
I’d found Meister on the street four years earlier. I was walking back from my astronomy class, in which the professor had told us that there’s a giant dust cloud in the center of the Milky Way and that research suggests it tastes like raspberries. I couldn’t stop thinking about that cloud.
Meister was peeing on a fire hydrant when I saw him. I’d never actually seen a dog do that, and I laughed for the first time all day. I stopped to pet him. When I called the number on his tag, the man sounded surprised; he said I should keep him. Their family had moved to Vermont, and they couldn’t bring Meister with them. I took Meister home, and he slept on my feet while I ate microwaved SpaghettiOs at the wobbly kitchen table, getting more and more furious with the family who had abandoned him. The SpaghettiOs looked like a thousand life preservers.
They’d packed up everything in their house, but not him. It seemed irresponsible even to me, a first-rate irresponsible person. I called the number again, but no one answered.
The vet said Meister was a mix of yellow Lab and probably a little sheltie, maybe border collie. Five or six years old, in good health, neutered, everything. I kept him. He set about endearing himself to me right away. It seemed he’d been taught to stay off furniture, so even though the training had been administered by cruel assholes, I figured I’d honor it and not encourage him. I even bought a doggy bed. One night I woke up and found him on my bed at the very edge, near my feet. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. I liked that he thought I couldn’t see him if he wasn’t looking at me. I patted the empty place next to me, and he was there in a flash. He curled up, gave a deep sigh, and fell asleep. Sometimes his farts were so putrid they woke me up, but I never made him go back to the floor.
Bonnie wasn’t sold on the concept of me as dog owner, though she never came out and said so. I knew she thought I was distracting myself from my failures — namely, my dropping out and my divorce. I had a bad track record at a young age. “You’re — we’re — too young to have baggage,” she said. Still, we were close. She sent me packages with exotic chocolates and makeup and perfume samples, and sometimes she’d throw in a squeak toy for Meister.
Baggage. What a word. As if the past gets folded up and wheeled behind you. Here’s what’s in my baggage: Ryland taught me how to shotgun a beer, how to change a tire, how to tie Boy Scout knots. I liked that he knew how to dance. Marrying him seemed like the most natural, correct move in the world, and then eleven months later it was like I’d signed up for surfing lessons in a wet suit stuffed with sand flies. I don’t think we loved each other any less or any more than other couples. But our timing was off. He once said, “I hope I never become an alcoholic, because I really like drinking,” and a week later I caught him sucking vodka he’d spilled on the kitchen floor through a straw.
Things were simple with George, who came next. George wasn’t boring, really; he was just someone who made naps easy. And I fell in love with him the same way you fall asleep: bit by bit, then all at once. Compared to Ryland, who had sucked booze off a dirty floor yet couldn’t handle the fact that I applied toothpaste directly to my tongue instead of putting it on the toothbrush first, George was a paragon of tolerance. For a few months I thought he might even be my ideal man. But ideal is relative. He was actually ideal only for a specific post-Ryland window of time and once this window expired, I hated everything he did. He didn’t get upset when I broke up with him. He just asked why I hadn’t done it sooner.
I preferred living alone, I told Bonnie. The right person for me was me — and Meister. And, I said, I wouldn’t be working at the Bagelry when I was forty, but so what if I was?
Bonnie had recently read a book about taking risks and was always encouraging me to take action. She said, “Now is the time to dare greatly.”
In a world where whole airplanes disappeared in an instant, where love came and love went inexplicably, who would want to dare greatly?
The day after the standing ovation, I woke up to find Meister lying under the kitchen table, panting heavily, a curry of diarrhea on the floor. His tail flitted in greeting, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. There was another pile in the bedroom, more solid but with streaks of blood in it. I stroked his velvet head as softly as I could.
“Has he eaten anything weird?” the vet asked on the phone. “Plastic, pills, metal?”
“I don’t think so. He’s never done anything like that before.” Meister was respectful of my space and things.
I called work to tell them I’d be late, and I drove him to the vet’s office. He usually hated the vet and didn’t want to get in the car, but this time he heaved himself onto the front seat and sat awkwardly with his front legs hanging off and glanced at me with eyes that said, I’m sorry you had to see that. We parked next to a rusty powder-blue Camry with the license plate YAHWEH.
The vet palpated Meister’s belly and closed her eyes. “There’s distention here. It could be a blockage, a tumor, or some other type of growth. We’ll need to do some tests.”
I said goodbye to Meister. He thumped his tail gamely against the metal table.
“Thank you for trusting me,” I whispered in his ear before I left. Out in the parking lot, a lady with a cat carrier in each hand was getting into the YAHWEH car.
“Don’t you work at the bagel place?” she asked. I told her I did, and I was in fact late for my shift now. She clapped her hands together. She loved the chocolate-chip bagels there. “It must be a neat place to work,” she said. “Do you get all the bagels you want?” I told her we didn’t really get free bagels, but I conceded that the chocolate-chip ones were really good. It was because they made them with Ghirardelli dark chocolate, not Hershey’s, and that’s why they were thirty cents more than the regular bagels.
Ted was a Bagelry regular and a Vietnam vet. “First Battalion, 505th Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division,” he recited when anyone asked.
He’d lost his family and his medical coverage in the late nineties, according to an employee who’d worked there longer than any of us. My co-worker Lenora didn’t like Ted because he hardly ever smiled, but you know what? He made eye contact and said thank you in such a careful way that you knew he meant it. Sometimes he’d come in and drop a handful of pennies and nickels he’d panhandled into our tip jar.
“He never puts quarters,” Lenora said once, fixing her lipstick in the shiny side of a toaster. I made a deal with myself then that it was OK to hate Lenora.
I snuck Ted a pumpernickel bagel. He said thank you and picked up the bagel, but his hand trembled so much that he dropped it straight into the trash bin. He started to reach for it.
“It’s OK, Ted,” I said. “Here.” I grabbed another bagel for him. “That thing’s full of curdled milk at the bottom.”
He took the bagel. Again it fell, this time onto the floor. He bent down and picked it up, brushed it off. I tried not to think about what people tracked in on the bottoms of their shoes. The light danced off the bagel’s baked-on egg finish. In his careful, sun-spotted hands, the floor bagel looked both pathetic and regal.
The manager, Rita, called to me through the swinging door. “Marissa, come here, please,” she said. I went.
She stood too close, as always. Her breath smelled like vitamins. “I know it’s hard to see needy people, but we can’t give away bagels left and right.”
“I’ll pay for them.”
“I know you will. I put a note in your chart.” She breathed B-complex at me and said, “Don’t forget it, kiddo — life’s not easy for any of us.”
The vet’s office called as I was leaving work. They wanted me to come pick up Meister and “discuss options with Dr. Parmi.”
“What we have here,” Dr. Parmi said, massaging Meister with both hands, “is an abdominal tumor. It’s not malignant, luckily, but it is in a troublesome place, and he’ll be uncomfortable until it’s removed. The surgery would run somewhere between twenty-five hundred and three thousand, depending on complications.” She had the good grace to glance away while she said the numbers.
“What are the other options?”
She let go of Meister, who rested his head on the exam table, and picked up her clipboard. “If you decide against surgery, he’ll be increasingly uncomfortable.”
“So . . . pain meds?”
“For a short time that could work. But this isn’t something manageable that way long term. What you’re looking at here is the possibility of putting him down.”
Meister’s eyes were closed. I thought of the lost airplane and the people on it, how it seemed impossible that something could just disappear like that. “I don’t have that much money,” I said.
“It’s not a decision you have to make today. I’ve given him some pain and stomach meds in the meantime. Give the secretary a call next week, OK?” She had her palm on Meister’s abdomen and was petting it lightly.
At home I threw myself face-first onto the couch. It smelled like dog. When I turned my head, Meister lay there with his head between his paws, eyes wide, looking disappointed with me, as if he knew I didn’t think he was worth three grand.
“I don’t have the money,” I told him. “I’d spend it on you if I did.” I felt like I was falling. My heart was a dying star. Was this what drove people to rob banks? Was that something I should consider? The world, after all, was senseless, and I was a part of it.
No way was I asking Bonnie for the money. She’d lord it over me as evidence that I needed to go back to school and get a life like hers, the life she complained about constantly — she never had time to swim anymore, city people were so disaffected, rent was too expensive, why was it so hard to meet a normal guy?
I regretted even mentioning it to her. “I could give you a loan,” she said. “Though there’s rumors around the building of the rent control being lifted, and if that happens . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
I was already deep in debt with college loans, and I’d maxed out my credit cards. Neither of my parents had anything to spare, given my mom’s failed pet-massage business and my dad’s new girlfriend, who loved to spend all his money. I scheduled Meister’s procedure — what a shit word for ending his life.
“I ’m going to college,” Ted the veteran told me the next day. He was always talking about going to college.
“What’re you going to study?” Same thing I always asked.
“Lit. I’ve always loved to read. Even in basic training, I’d have my nose in a book before we had to get out of bed. The other guys gave me grief about it.” Same thing he always said.
But then he pulled a folded sheet of paper from his shirt pocket. He opened it and flattened it on the counter. It was a printout of a registration form for an online course in English literature at UIC Extension. “I can do it at the library,” he said. “They gave me special permission. How cool is that?”
A woman and five kids burst in. It was the lady from the vet’s parking lot. She ordered a half dozen chocolate-chip with extra cream cheese, hardly glancing at me as she corralled the children, who were wiping their hands and noses on the display case. I wanted to tell her about Meister. I smiled at the kids with the biggest helping of good nature I could muster. I thought she’d say hi, but she didn’t. I almost told her about the other day — how she’d been the one to recognize me — but it seemed like that would somehow add to her burden, so I kept my mouth shut. After they were gone, the place quieted down. Ted had left without saying goodbye.
I called Bonnie, who was no help. “You should give him a nice last meal,” she said.
“Take him out to a steakhouse or something?”
“Know what the guy who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby asked for?”
“Is it steak dogs love? Or chicken? Do dogs taste things the way we do?”
“One olive. One single one.”
She asked if I wanted her to come visit for the weekend, to be there for me afterward. The thought of being around her after putting Meister down actually nauseated me. I pictured my apartment without him, his empty bed, the days and weeks of finding his hair on things until the day I realized I hadn’t found his hair on anything in weeks. It would take me a long time to get used to life without him. Bonnie would give me two days and expect me to be over it, and then I’d have to deal with disappointing her on top of the grief. My face was hot; just thinking about it made me want to cry. I took a deep, trembling breath and said no thanks, I’d be fine.
“It’s crazy about that plane, isn’t it?” Bonnie said. “My co-worker’s fiancé’s old boss was on it. They say they might never find it. But, like, how many places could it be?”
I told her I had to go. Then I called the vet and canceled Meister’s procedure.
“Would you perhaps like to reschedule for another date or time?” the wordy secretary asked.
“Not that procedure. I’d like to schedule the surgery.”
We found a date. After we hung up, I checked my account balance again — not enough — and sat on the floor next to Meister. He looked at me and looked at me. A staring-contest natural. His tail thumped. I laughed and it thumped harder. He lowered his head. The harder he wagged his tail, the farther down his head went, as if he were embarrassed by his happiness.
I’d do whatever it took. I’d get a second job. I’d get another credit card.
The phone rang.
It was my manager, Rita. A co-worker had food poisoning. Could I come in to work? I’d make overtime.
There was always an after-school rush, and that day was no different. It was loud, and the tables weren’t getting cleared, as usual, even though everyone could see the sign asking customers to please bus their own tables. We employees had devised a hierarchy of cleanup probability. High-school kids: never. Moms and businessmen: usually. Regulars like Ted: always. Ted was there in his usual spot in the back corner, doing something unusual — reading a book. He traced the words with his middle finger as he read.
I looked up to help whoever was next in line. There was a gun pointed at my chest. Two eyes pointed at my face from inside a dark-green ski mask.
Slowly people began to notice. Someone screamed. Everyone dropped to the ground, crawled under tables. I thought how it was going to hurt really bad when the gun went off. He was going to start with me. I hadn’t given that woman her bagels for free. I deserved it. Then I thought how terrible that Ted was going to die after finally signing up for that class; that this veteran who’d survived being shot in war was now going to die in a bagel shop in a strip mall surrounded by people whose right to a free and soulless existence he had fought to protect. And then sorrow filled my heart for everyone else in the shop, because after he shot me, he’d shoot them, and then he’d shoot himself. It would all be over in minutes.
“Open the drawer, open the drawer, goddammit,” he was saying. “Get the fucking money.” The drawer wouldn’t open without a transaction, so I hit the button for a chocolate-chip bagel and mashed my fingers on the keypad and rang up 2,332 bagels, which came to $3,312.02. The drawer popped, and I lifted the cash stack by stack. I started with the twenties. Someone was sobbing. The man told me to put the money in a paper bag, and I did. My hands did not tremble. I did what he said, and he took the bag and ran out.
They caught him two days later. Life resumed.
I paid for Meister’s surgery with a new credit card, which had a 17.9 percent APR, the lowest I could get approved for. The knowable future expense was worth it to keep Meister with me for the unknowable future. And who knew — the world might end before I had to pay it off.
After the robbery, that gun muzzle showed up in my dreams regularly. As months passed, it appeared less and less often. Sometimes I’ll feel a chill while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store or watching a movie in a crowded theater. Where does trauma hide in our bodies? It’s a mystery. There’s a lot we don’t know. The missing plane remains missing. Two hundred thirty-nine people vanished, and despite our technology and intelligence and commitment, we cannot find them. Not a trace.
I was enjoying Kelly Luce’s story “Stop Hitting Yourself” until I reached the line, “I fell in love with him the same way you fall asleep: bit by bit, then all at once.” The sentence resonated with me, not just because of its poetry, but because it is nearly identical to a line in John Green’s bestselling young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.” I will give Luce the benefit of the doubt and assume this was an inadvertent homage, but I urge your fiction editors to be more diligent in the future.
The “homage” was indeed inadvertent; I haven’t read that book nor seen the film based on it. Nonetheless, I did some investigating.
My first draft of “Stop Hitting Yourself,” from 2011, already contains that line, and the ones leading up to it: “Things were simple with George, who came next. George wasn’t boring, really; he was just someone who made naps easy. And I fell in love with him the same way you fall asleep: bit by bit, then all at once.” Green’s novel came out a year later, in 2012.
In a subsequent draft that I workshopped, I have a note next to that line: “Would Marissa really say something this corny and romantic?” Apparently I decided she would.
I appreciated that Kelly Luce wrote about an everyday person with money struggles, a good dog, and failures in love [“Stop Hitting Yourself,” September 2017]. Her short story wasn’t melodramatic, obvious, or silly, but it made me cry and laugh out loud nonetheless. I hope to read more of her work.