Last year, Lizette Martinez found herself facing the aftermath of a breakup darker than she thought she could have ever gotten herself into. The other party had thrown stuff at her and threatened suicide, and she had not acted much better herself. She had stooped to the other party’s level, done the kind of things she knew her parents had been fucked up for doing to each other, and had thereby fucked her up with doing. Her parents had left her awkward, without funny cute quirky parental anecdotes to tell at parties, with a significantly darker worldview than her peers, with issues and hangups and weird stuff with everyone she’d ever dated and any friend she’d ever been attracted to. They’d left her with an embarrassing goth past, with a resentment of everyone who embraced that kind of dark stuff half-heartedly or fashionably while being, in every aspect, what Tony Soprano would call happy wanderers, if you remember that episode. She resented these people for their apparently nice and conflict-free friendships and relationships and normal parents and lucrative jobs and minimal struggle or adjustment in their every transition from one phase of life to another. Lizette saw herself, unproductively, spiraling out and becoming boring and predictable unto herself in her self-pitying obsessiveness, and she decided she would pull herself together like she’d never pulled herself together before.
She’d go in to her job at the for-profit tutoring center always “on,” always safely charismatic and enthusiastic and tactful and ready for anything. She’d casually date a series of men and women without getting too attached to anyone unless it really made logical sense to, not get her heart broken, but not ignore too many red flags or date compulsively or without joy, either– be discriminating, but have a good time. Don’t treat it like you’re trying to reach some goal.
Perhaps most significantly, she’d give up alcohol, cigarettes, pot and coffee. She hadn’t taken any prescription medication for anxiety in several years, since she had been fired from the “real” job she had in publishing, which had given her health insurance. How could she even know what she was like as a person if she had been, for years, constantly on what is undeniably a drug cocktail, with each drug counteracting another in some subtle but also significant way? That’s the thing they don’t tell you about drugs: virtually all adults are always on caffeine and probably something else for anxiety or something, plus additional moderate, lite fare in the evenings, and therefore always on drugs and they love them and depend on them. No more, she thought, at least not for a while.
Caffeine withdrawal pummeled her for several days, and abandoning the other substances– even cigarettes, most surprisingly of all– made no discernible difference to her mood, except for a few gnarly coughs and loogies in the shower. She wasn’t some addict, after all. On the fourth day she felt great, took big long clean breaths, got enough sleep, concentrated, multitasked, made lists of things she wanted to do. Downloaded two dating apps.
Her first match was an ambiguously doughy guy with short blonde hair and rosy cheeks and an easygoing smile in every pic, t-shirts, some kind of picnic with what appeared to be his parents and maybe a brother, fishing trips, Vegas, a tux with fellow groomsmen, an Anchorman quote, a description about loving to go on adventures and chill with friends. His name was Ken. He was 38– twelve years older than her, two years younger than the maximum age she’d put that she was looking for: twenty-four when she was twelve, eighteen when she was six.
He was not particularly handsome, and his profile did not reflect her personal tastes or general sensibility, and yet– what positivity! What a straightforward approach to life! Who cared how adeptly someone projected a particular aesthetic online? All online dating profiles read more or less like this, after all, unless they were intentionally off-putting or antagonistic troll profiles, the kind people even more maladjusted than Lizette would sometimes make for God knows what reason. It took courage to be vulnerable, to embarrass yourself like this in order to combat loneliness. God bless him.
She messaged first and found herself remembering how easy and fun it was to banter again, to tease and goof on someone. She could do it! And well! She wasn’t some dark spot at a party, some grimacing wraith ruining everyone’s good time, not always! And he joked around just fine, yes and-ing, lotta absurdities, silly stuff, hypothetical situations, everything flirtatious, even warm, but nothing clingy or creepy or beyond any normal boundary. They texted like that for a few days and set a date for that Saturday evening.
Around five on Saturday, an anxiety hit her like she’d never experienced– she was short of breath, strongly averse to making a single motion, and felt as though a missile hovered in the sky directly above her, and that only its inevitable destruction of everything around her could possibly bring relief. Something horrible would happen tonight, she knew. She’d come home to the cat dead. She pictured its cute face, the way it looked when it gave her a little loving blink, but severed from its body by some means, like roadkill she’d seen. Worse still, she’d kill the cat, either by accident or after going completely insane like in The Babadook, or something somewhere in the middle, manslaughtering it somehow. Or! She and Ken would go out and get mugged. Or Ken himself was a sex criminal, a murderer, a cannibal. She would get news during the date that her sister was dead, her favorite person in the world, her only confidante, slashed in the throat by a stranger in the street, something ignoble. Lizette didn’t deserve a nice night with an okay dude. Things just didn’t happen that way. She looked frantically on her phone for a .gif she’d seen that one was supposed to follow to regulate one’s breathing, but all she could pull up was a still image of it. That’s one way to get out of this, she figured– just stare at that while holding my breath.
She wasn’t too married to her newfound vow of abstinence from substances, but she didn’t want to smell like cigarettes and she didn’t want to have whiskey on her breath and give the wrong impression, especially when such an impression was so contrary to her recent habits. Anyway, a drink wouldn’t really alleviate anxiety, just add a different emotion on top of it, which was what she was thinking when she quit entirely in the first place. She looked around for the kava root she used to take more regularly and couldn’t find it.
She thought of other methods: stare at the floor. Touch the wall, feel its cool surface and focus on it. She thought how so many meditation techniques were so similar to what she was naturally inclined to do when this kind of thing happened to her, which was to lay on the bathroom floor.
She flopped her body around on the bathroom floor, then decided she was too antsy to be on the floor and stomped around the apartment taking deep breaths. Then she looked at her phone, which she’d left in her bedroom– it had three missed calls and five text messages from Ken explaining, long-windedly and with forced whimsy and pedantic word choices, that he was there to pick her up forty-five minutes early.
She let out a quiet, guttural scream and threw her phone on the bed, then threw on the pink leotard and black skirt and choker she’d decided the night before that she would wear. She would just have to not shower and probably smell not great. She walked out the door to Ken standing in front of his car in his big jeans and his plaid short sleeve button-up like a middle schooler going to a dance. He was holding a single red rose. Something in her gut twisted hard and she felt a vast, dusky chasm of sadness open up in front of her.
“Thanks! Uh. What do I do with it? No, I’m just kidding. Okay, thank– okay, thank you. You ready, are we ready to, to go? Okay,” she said, and got in the car.
Ken was an excellent driver. He continued apologizing for his early arrival and then moved on to talking about the band he had playing on the stereo, their new album and what it was like going to see them. She gripped the seat hard and focused on breathing and gave one-syllable responses with pained enthusiasm and blinked too much. By the time they got to the restaurant– Mexican, with bright colored walls and exposed brick– she had mostly calmed down.
She excused herself to go to the bathroom, and when she came back and the waters and menus were on the table, Ken smiled at her and took out his phone and took a picture of her walking towards him. She ordered one taco, and– just as she’d feared and anticipated as she was ordering– he grilled her on whether she was really hungry, whether she’d rather eat somewhere else, frantically attentive to her overall comfort. She deflected, and for the next half hour they talked in generic and genial terms about their jobs and about bands. It was all fine, but lacked the witty edge of their texting, felt all business, like a meeting, and she wondered if she was to blame for this, too, with her one-word answers earlier, her difficulty, the shield she felt herself putting up. When he got up to go to the bathroom after they’d asked for the check, she checked her phone and saw that he’d posted the photo of her with the caption “This one…”
What, she asked herself, was she thinking with any of this? She couldn’t pull herself together, not at all. How could a person ever be casual about rejecting someone, handling some person’s feelings, especially when any kind of affection and validation in the world was in such short supply anyway? Especially when she was in such a vulnerable state herself, and the affection and warmth of another person were so tempting? Plus, what if he, like, yelled at her? Cried, had a meltdown? She decided she deserved to go easy on herself and just stick it out for the night, keep him in a state of peaceful optimism, at least until later, when she’d be in a better mindset to tell him she didn’t want to see him again. Ken proposed getting a drink and she said she wasn’t drinking but that she could go. They drove.
Then a truck veered into their lane and smashed directly into Ken’s side, sending the car spinning out. When she woke up she was completely unhurt, not even feeling physically rattled from the impact because she had apparently just passed out shortly after. She was sitting upright by the side of the road, bloody glass and smashed metal in a big pile a few feet to her right, with two paramedics by her side and some police officers and firefighters milling around looking at the damage. She asked after Ken and they said “your boyfriend” was alive but “badly injured” and unconscious and on his way to the hospital. The police drove her home.
When she checked her phone– which had also survived the accident without a scratch!– she had a message from Samantha, her boss at the tutoring place. “Need you to ‘come in’ for redo some of your note to parents.” The quotes around “come in,” Lizette knew from previous encounters with Samantha’s writing, were for emphasis. This was an adult woman whose first language was English, whose job was to tell Lizette whether or not Lizette was correctly teaching kids grammar. Also she was asking Lizette to make a trip out and come meet with her for free, since Lizette was paid hourly for the sessions with the students.
“I’d prefer not to, I was just in a car crash,” Lizette replied.
“Please we ‘need’ you come review these information here tonight,” Samantha wrote back almost immediately. “Important for maintain professional business relationship.”
Lizette put her phone away, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back. Once she got home, she grabbed her bus pass and started the schlep to the tutoring center.
Samantha, who was blonde and had distractingly ruddy and oily skin, gave Lizette a hug. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry what happened to you! Was it your fault?”
“No, it was the driver’s fault, it was this– it was bad. It was a truck, and– whatever, whatever, it’s okay, it’s okay now, I’m here.”
Samantha stayed staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed as if expecting Lizette to elaborate, wanting the story, for kind of a long time and then gave up.
“So! What I need from you, and it’s really not a big deal, it’s just these notes that we have for Brayden’s mom. And Brayden’s mom is a handful. Well, I mean, you know Brayden, so you can imagine. So I just need, she just needs a gentle touch, they pay good money, they’re important clients, so here where you say, ‘Brayden is struggling with verb tenses,’ okay, make it– almost make it sound like an improvement is happening even though the opposite is true, so like, ‘Brayden is ready to make progress with verb tenses.’ Well, I mean, you’re the creative one, so I’ll trust you here. Just really, really, these are powerful people and they really need to be handled carefully. Remember your job is teaching but it’s also selling these people the experience we offer here, selling them on the value of it.”
Lizette re-wrote Brayden’s progress report to say, “Brayden is a wonderful student and a joy to be around. He is assertive, has high self-esteem, and is almost ready to begin showing signs of a work ethic and a respectful demeanor around the tutoring center. Right now areas where he has an opportunity to improve his already wonderful skills include verb tense, sentence fragments, reading comprehension, not calling me fat while I’m trying to teach, and hygiene.”
Lizette thought, as soon as she got home, she’d have to do some research/ stalking online and ask around and find out which hospital they took Ken to and see how he was doing, maybe visit if it wasn’t family-only. It would only be right. She knocked on Samantha’s office door and handed the notebook to her. Samantha read it and said, “Okay, I’m gonna be honest, I don’t love it. I don’t love it. I think– because these people, they can smell bullshit, and they need– almost, maybe, lie more, or more blatantly, or more abstractly, or maybe what I’m thinking is where you lied, you should have told the truth, and where you told the truth, you should have lied. Does that make sense?”
Lizette went back and wrote: “I’ll be completely honest. You are an important client and we want your money so we can keep surviving in the awful jungle that is our own lives, so you can literally pay people to say whatever you want about your child. Which is why you can trust my opinion on the matter: I’m not afraid to tell you that he is awful in personality and a disaster intellectually as well. Keep coming in and letting me do little writing exercises with him indefinitely and he’ll be just fine to run one of the big banks into the ground one day.”
“Sweetie?” Samantha appeared before Lizette. “Are you okay? It’s been twenty-five minutes.”
“Oh, shit,” Lizette said.
Samantha picked up the journal and read it, her wet face tightening and tightening with each word she clearly struggled to read.
“What do you think, you think this is funny?” Samantha asked, a twinge of Long Island accent coming out. “Come on. Come on, man. This is our livelihoods, you and me both. Come on, man.” Samantha put the notebook down.
Lizette erased what she’d written for the third time, shavings going everywhere and the page repeatedly folding into itself as she did so. She searched something on her phone, then began to copy down, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” She left the notebook on the table and walked out the door.