The Brutal Language of Love

BOOK: The Brutal Language of Love
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Praise for
The Brutal Language of Love

“Very much in the footsteps of Mary Gaitskill…[a] nimble group of tales that are lip-biters, intentional head-shakers.”

—The Hartford Courant

“There is a certain amount of guilty pleasure involved in reading this debut collection, because Alicia Erian regularly commits infractions against the Etiquette of the Short Story…. In [her] tenderest works,…Erian earns her title…. Sex is less a teleology than an alphabet, composing endless possibilities.”

—The Village Voice

“Alicia Erian's stories sneak up on you. The calm, direct, quietly self-effacing, and remarkably unflinching voice of these narratives is always telling a more complicated story than it appears to be. The reveals are so subtle and well crafted that the reader feels rich and rewarded every single time.”

—Pam Houston, author of
Cowboys Are My Weakness

“[Erian's] stories are so propulsive that I couldn't resist her hapless heroines.”

—
Mademoiselle

“Seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous, these tales are true gems.”

—
Publishers Weekly
(starred review)


The Brutal Language of Love
is a jumble of contradictions—silly and smart, truthful and ridiculous, heartless and suddenly, painfully heartfelt. Alicia Erian is an original, and very funny, too.”

—Mary Gaitskill, author of
Because They Wanted To

“[Erian is] good at capturing the dark and sensual underside of life. [But] she cares, and it comes across.”

—
Library Journal

“Erian presents her world in hilarious, unsentimental prose.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“In Alicia Erian's provocative debut collection, young women go looking for love and find only trouble, around the world and across the street.
The Brutal Language of Love
maps out a dark landscape of risk and desire, illuminated by vivid flashes of humor and insight.”

—Tom Perotta, author of
Election

The Brutal Language of Love

Simon & Schuster
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2001 by Alicia Erian

Acknowledgment is made to the publications in which these stories first appeared: “Bikini” in
The Sun;
“Standing Up to the Superpowers” in
Confrontation;
“Almonds and Cherries” in
The Iowa Review;
“Lass” in
Zoetrope;
“When Animals Attack” in
The Barcelona Review;
“Alcatraz” in
Nerve.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

SIMON
&
SCHUSTER
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Erian, Alicia.
     The brutal language of love : stories / Alicia Erian.
       p. cm.
1. Love stories, American. 2. Young women—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3555.R4265B78 2001
813'.6—dc21

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-9713-1
ISBN-10: 1-4165-9713-1

Visit us on the World Wide Web:
http://www.SimonSays.com

for David Franklin

The Brutal Language of Love
Standing Up to the Superpowers

Beatrice told Shipley she would sleep with him,
and then she passed out. When she awoke the next morning, he said he'd gone ahead without her. He got dressed and asked her to drive him to the police station so he could turn himself in for rape, but she said not to worry about it. She wasn't happy, she said, but it was her own fault for drinking with a freshman. Shipley walked to the police station and turned himself in anyway. A Lieutenant Verbena called to see if Beatrice wanted to press charges and she said no. “Put him on,” Beatrice said, and when Shipley said hello she hung up.

He called her the next day to say his mother, a pediatrician, had suggested she take a morning-after pill. “You told your mother?” Beatrice asked.

“She's a doctor,” Shipley said.

“I got that.”

“I'm going into counseling for my drinking,” he added.

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“I'm twenty-two,” she said. “Now leave me alone.”

Beatrice was a junior. She had taken a year off from college to work in a cheap clothing store for older women, then returned to school when she realized she made more money living off student loans. Her father, a divorce lawyer who had successfully represented himself against Beatrice's mother, had promised to help with tuition as long as Beatrice did well in high school. When she turned out to be not quite as smart as early test scores had indicated, however, he reneged. His advice to her was to stay away from the humanities, where there were no jobs.

She signed up for a Russian literature course with a professor named Fetko, who gave her good marks for implying that she'd be willing to sleep with him. Sometimes in his office he'd let her sip from his vending machine coffee, or take bites from the sandwiches his wife had prepared for him. Other times he gave her quarters for her own snacks. Mostly they just sat around shooting the shit, talking about Chekhov and his famous hemorrhoids.

Shipley, the freshman, was also in Russian literature. Fetko hated him and so did Beatrice. He was always asking stupid questions and interrupting Fetko's flow, something that was very important to Fetko. “Get him drunk and fuck with his head,” Fetko had instructed Beatrice. “That would be worth a letter grade to me.” Now, as she sat before her professor after Monday's class, Beatrice was unsure of what to say. “I fucked with him,” she began, but when she described exactly how, Fetko turned white. “Jesus, Beatrice,” he said, letting his pipe hang limp from his mouth.

She shrugged. She had been asleep when it happened.

Shipley called that afternoon to ask about the
morning-after pill. Beatrice was sitting in her attic bedroom in a house filled with students. She had slept with two film majors on the second floor, one of whom had gone to great lengths to explain his uncircumcised penis to her. This had made her laugh—something she rarely did—and lose all interest in him, though she let him screw her anyway. “You're so hot,” he'd whispered in her ear. “All the guys in the house want you.”

“Thanks,” she'd said, waiting for him to finish. Compliments had stopped doing it for her a long time ago.

Today she was trying to read a book about China for a history class. The professor was old and deaf, and whenever she tried to make a pass at him, he'd bellow, “What?” It was a grade she would actually have to work for, and it was killing her. Sometimes she went to his office to tell him this and he just nodded, pretending he could hear. She was no dummy. Her brain had just stopped accepting academic text along with the compliments.

What kind of name was Shipley anyway? Beatrice had half a mind to ask him now that he was on the phone, but didn't like to encourage friendship. Anyway, she was irritated, sick of his mother and this morning-after crap. “Don't worry about it,” she told him. “I'm on birth control.”

“What kind?” he asked, panting a little.

“What do you mean what kind?”

“What brand?”

“I don't know.”

“Generic is cheaper.”

“Fuck off.”

He laughed. “You have a nice personality. I liked you even before we got drunk.”

“Thanks.”

“You wanna keep talking?”

“Let me think. No.”

“I tried to talk to you after class today but you left so fast I couldn't find you.”

“Try to breathe slower,” Beatrice instructed him.

“Can I talk to you after class on Wednesday?”

“No.”

“Before class?”

She hung up on him. He was in love with her, that much was clear. It happened all the time; men loved her personality, thought it was nice. Not nice-nice obviously, but nice-honest. Back home, people said she was like her mother, who was often described as acidic, and who had become a lesbian after Beatrice left for college. “Sex is sex,” she had once advised her daughter. “No need to be picky.” What bothered Beatrice was her mother's refusal to come out in the liberal, north-western city where she lived, instead preferring to divulge the intimate details of her love life solely to Beatrice, over the telephone.

“I don't want to hear it, Mom,” Beatrice would say, at which point her mother would accuse her of being homo-phobic. Beatrice protested, saying she had never felt comfortable with her mother's bedroom stories about her father either. “So I guess I'll kill myself,” was her mother's response, “if my own daughter won't even talk to me.” It was Beatrice's freshman year and she didn't need the responsibility, so she listened. She allowed herself to be lost track of as a sophomore, however, moving off-campus and delisting her number. There was some comfort in knowing that neither of her parents had ever been of a mind to chase after her.

Increasingly, Beatrice loved no one. She had a fair amount of sex but in general preferred her own company, and on occasion that of Fetko. He had information about dead writers that fascinated her, health problems and such. She told him that after he died, people would say he had liked for his girl students to talk dirty to him, but he said no one would care since he wasn't a real writer. She pointed out his books of criticism and he told her she was sweet to be so naïve, to have such big tits. In the end, though, she was glad he never tried to touch them, that it never went beyond talk. This would have weakened their rapport, which was something she felt they definitely enjoyed. Everybody traded on what they had, after all, and if what you had wasn't pretty, well, there was still a friend for you.

In class on Wednesday, Fetko seemed distracted.
When Shipley raised his hand and asked him to expand upon the socioeconomic conditions of the lady with the pet dog, he did so without protest. Later, when Beatrice went to meet him in his office, he wasn't there. A note on his door said he was ill and that office hours had been canceled. Beatrice hoped Fetko's guilt over what had happened between her and Shipley would not jeopardize their arrangement. She had enough on her plate worrying about China without the added anxiety of having to complete his assignments as well.

At a vending machine she purchased lunch—a chocolate bar and pretzels, neither of which would taste like anything, she already knew. She found a bench on a wide walkway in front of the tall Humanities Building, and looked down into the valley at the poor town she had sold ugly clothes to the previous year. It's better up here, she thought, though she knew she would tumble down the hill soon enough.

Moments later she was joined by Shipley, a fat, sweaty guy with a dumb haircut. People's appearances were of little concern to Beatrice. She bedded the handsome and the homely alike. Along with her taste buds had gone her sense of smell, and she didn't miss it. Sex, she believed, should be more of a democratic process, distributed only when a situation—and not a person—merited it.

He presented her with a card depicting Monet's
Water Lilies
and containing a message that read,
Sorry I raped you—Shipley.

“It's not funny, you know,” she said, thrusting the card back at him.

He took it. “I know.”

“Then what the hell is that?” she said, motioning toward the card. He was picking at it with his wet fingers.

“My parents think I should try to make it up to you.”

“Are you retarded or something?”

He laughed, relieved. “You have a
great
personality.”

“You are retarded,” she said.

“I'm in college,” he offered.

“You have some sort of emotional retardation,” she surmised, “some sort of freakishness in that way.”

He shrugged. Suddenly, a strange concern that she had hurt his feelings came and went. “Well,” she said, “I guess I'll take the card back.”

He handed it to her, then sat down on the bench. Her nylon book bag lay between them, and she made no attempt to move it. “You're my first,” he said.

“Is that right?” she said. She had been many, many firsts.

“That's why you're kind of special to me.”

“Uh-huh.” She was alternating: a bite of chocolate, a bite of pretzel. Sweet, salt, sweet, salt. It tasted like a little something.

“I'd like you to meet my parents,” he said hopefully.

“You're a nice kid,” she said. “I don't really like to meet people's parents.”

“My mother feeds expired birth control pills to our plants,” he said, “to fertilize them.”

“Stop talking about that,” she snapped.

“Sorry,” he said.

They spent the rest of the afternoon like that: together, but not too close.

Fetko seemed back to his normal self on Friday.
He refused to acknowledge Shipley's request for an accounting of Babel's whereabouts on the eve of the revolution, and was in his office after class. But when Beatrice asked him softly what she would find if she unzipped his pants, he stared back at her blankly. “Beatrice,” he said, rubbing his eyes, “I've made a mistake here. We can talk as much as you want—anytime you want—but not about the stuff we used to talk about. And you need to start doing better on your quizzes.”

She left his office, stunned. She went home and masturbated, then fell asleep. A call from Shipley woke her at around eleven that night. “What do you want?” she demanded.

“I'm hoping we're going to make love again sometime soon. When you're awake.”

“Forget it.” She sat up in bed and noticed how perfectly her square, latticed windows framed an amoebic moon.

“What's the matter?” he asked.

“My boyfriend dumped me.”

“You have a boyfriend?”

“Had.”

“Wow.” He paused for a moment before saying, “Well, that's great! Now I have a better chance!”

She laughed for the first time since the explanation of the uncircumcised penis. “I guess you do.”

“Really?” he asked, excited.

She woke up a little more. “No.”

She went on to tell him about China, as a sort of review for a test she had the next day. He listened intently, and she was surprised at a man more than satisfied by this kind of talk.

She failed the test, having spent too much time
studying the health of the Chinese—acupuncture and such—as opposed to agriculture and commerce. She wasn't doing much better in Russian literature, where she had begun sitting next to Shipley and passing him questions intended to drive the professor mad. Upon receipt of these, Shipley would instantly raise his hand and ask, “Is
Lolita
a memoir?” or, “Have you ever been to the Russian circus?” Though Fetko eventually stopped calling on him, Shipley continued to wave his arm around maniacally, complaining frequently of numbness in his fingers. It was during this period that Beatrice first knew herself to giggle.

She could've scared Fetko, she knew—could've threatened to turn him in if he didn't keep her grades up. But the thought of this reminded her too much of that first night with Shipley: how, because she had set out to harm him, the whole thing was really all her fault. In reporting either man she would only incriminate herself—reveal that she was a fraud who would do anything to keep her good grades and student loans. There was no point. Her only recourse now was to brace herself, China and Russia having allied themselves against her.

Shipley had an old VW van he drove Beatrice
around in after class. He bought her lunch with a credit card belonging to a Shipley Sr., and wrote stories in which the two of them met Chekhov and took him to the doctor. He let Beatrice stick a fine sewing needle in his face and insisted it made him feel better all around. Knowing her financial situation, he cut her envelopes of coupons, brought her bags of pharmaceutical samples from his mother's office. They lay side by side on the grassy campus hills, drinking children's cough syrup and chewing Flintstones vitamins until the sun set over the Fine Arts Building and they fell asleep, waking up with bugs and grass in their hair. The word
idyllic
sprang to Beatrice's mind more than once, but she ignored it, thinking it was probably just anxiety. For when she wasn't with Shipley, she was irritable, unsettled. She had lost track of some of her unhappiness and could not seem to relocate it, not even in the bedrooms of the boys on the second floor—though she had looked.

BOOK: The Brutal Language of Love
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