Congratulations! You have just been informed of your acceptance to graduate school in the American south to pursue (and hopefully catch!) a degree affirming you as master of the fine art of creative writing. Your heart pirouettes! You have a plan! And hot damn, you have also been accepted to a graduate school out in the far west, where you once visited as a child and reasoned was as fine a place as any to wind up. You really shouldn’t be going to graduate school because you are twenty-two and adept only at chain-smoking outside of parties you don’t want to be at, but it’s 2009, the American economy is tanked, and you’re about to graduate. You’ve got to go somewhere, right?
If you decide to go south, go to 1.
If you decide to go west, young woman, go to 2.
Great choice! Before you relocate to the land of barbecue and seashells, you must contend with your boyfriend. Here are some facts about him:
He has a ponytail.
He took your virginity.
He is the only boyfriend you’ve had and undoubtedly the only one you will ever have. You slouch, you’ve got two chins and acne, and you’re a solid size sixteen. You are a vile and repulsive creature abhorrent for all to behold! Look how long it took to convince someone to deflower you at the spinster’s age of twenty-one. This fun little tidbit is your most shameful truth.
If you invite your boyfriend to accompany you, go to 3.
If you tell your boyfriend I am an independent woman of the twenty-first century and I need no ponytailed man to make me value my own worth! go to 4.
You move to the Mountain Time Zone brimming with aspirations and without a cent to your name. Get used to it! You’re a writer now! You spend many happy hours at happy hour bickering with your peers about unreliable narrators and enjambment. On weekends you voyage into the grand vistas of Mother Nature that surround your new home with your friends and their dogs who all have names like Vonnegut and Pynchon and Baudelaire. You write a series of interconnected short stories starring a thinly-veiled version of yourself named Harriet Henderson. She is lovably hapless in most things, though your thesis advisor believes she would benefit greatly from some real-world experience.
Over fall break you go cave camping in the Mission Mountains and an unexpected avalanche seals you and your cohort inside. After forty-three days, a poet succumbs to starvation. The novelists suggest the rest of you eat her, and you do not disagree.
Still, you die. An ugly memorial is built with your cadre represented as stacked books. The statue looks less like your unwritten masterworks and more like phonebooks used as booster seats in cheap restaurants, the kind you used to never bring inside, that no one even uses anymore, that you used to let molder and wrinkle in the rain.
You and your boyfriend caravan to your new coastal home in the peak of summer. The GPS directs you down a road of endless car dealerships, strip malls, and Waffle Houses. Moving sight unseen may have been a mistake. It won’t be your last.
Being from Oklahoma, your tolerance for Wal-Marts, big billboards, and over-bright neon is fairly high, but your boyfriend is not so forbearing. He is from Annandale County in western New Jersey, the third-richest county in America. He emphasizes that he is not from shitty New Jersey but beautiful New Jersey, and when you visited there last Thanksgiving, it was beautiful, all dense woods and babbling brooks and a rustic water mill straight from a Thomas Kinkade light painting. You were amazed by the McMansion luxury of the house he grew up in and the deer that wreaked havoc all over the manicured lawn. Your boyfriend called them rats with antlers, but you were mystified by their abundance, their up-close enormity, their silence that you mistook for grace.
After Thanksgiving, you try to help with clean-up and put the good silverware in the regular cutlery drawer. Your boyfriend’s mother shows you the velvet-lined case where these heirlooms truly belong. Your boyfriend’s mother is in frighteningly good shape. You are not. You are not quite as fat as your boyfriend’s previous girlfriend—the one he cheated on with you—but you are much, much fatter than his mother. This becomes apparent when she emerges in a red bathing suit. You reluctantly change into yours, and then all of you—your boyfriend, his brother, his parents, and you—hop into the Jacuzzi together.
You sip your little cup of Godiva liqueur and wish you were one of the many deer freely frolicking in the third-richest county in America right now. You wish you were inside with the purebred, decrepit golden retrievers, Missy and Maddy, the only members of this household who are openly happy to see you. You wish you were anywhere else, and yes, anyone else, but that’s why you write, after all.
When Thanksgiving rolls around next year, your boyfriend will go to New Jersey. You will not. You bake two pies and take them to a student potluck, where they go uneaten.
You and your boyfriend ultimately rent a townhouse in an apartment complex on a street called Confederate Drive. A week before Christmas, you are invited to a party. At dinner beforehand, your boyfriends presents you with a small black box. You open it.
If it’s a shiny diamond engagement ring, go to 5.
If it’s a necklace of some indeterminate stone that he immediately begins detailing the extravagant cost of, go to 6.
You just saved yourself from a whole heap of heartbreak and misery. Awesome job, tiger!
Go to 10.
Wow! Getting married is a great idea! Admittedly you’ve dreamt of a wedding in the embarrassing heteronormative little girl way that you also dreamt you were a princess or an orphan or better yet, an orphaned princess. Remember—this is probably your one shot at matrimonial bliss, fatso! No one should love you, and no one ever will, so of course you say yes.
Your now-husband says I do in the foyer of a grand mansion with a whitewashed past of human bondage. His mother weeps hysterically. Her son has always loved girls who needed that love, who wore their insecurity as loudly as the ugly clothes that never hid their fat. This one—the one he brought home like some venereal disease from his semester abroad—is clearly unhinged. She’s taken up baking though sugar is the last thing she needs. At least her son is still the tall, fit man she raised, and she plans on keeping it that way. She can’t bear the distance—it’s unnatural!—but you, bankrupted by this wedding, can’t afford to rent, let alone buy in the third-richest county in America. Your mother-in-law offers the basement. Your husband agrees. You move in, newlyweds, to the rec room downstairs.
In the twenty years before his father dies, the forty before his mother, you’re never sure what’s worse: leaving the door open and forfeiting your privacy, or shutting it and sealing yourself inside your own tomb.
You don’t like the necklace but you put it on anyway. You are weirdly relieved and simultaneously disappointed because you truly thought there was a diamond ring in that box. You are conflicted about wanting to get married—to know you are loved, to have it validated in front of lots of people, to throw a giant party with cake—and knowing you want to be validated more than you want to get married. Mostly you want cake.
There’s also this: You are so enamored with the story of you—the frenzied manic romance of it, the streetlamp kisses, the train station farewells. You had been living in Europe for six months, presumably immersing yourself in a foreign culture for a semester studying abroad. You and he were both vacationing for half a year, tourists gallivanting around drunk under the guise of scholarship. Later, when you are a full-time graduate student of writing, you will mock your others’ essays about this clichéd, contrived, overprivileged time. Especially disdainful are the essays wringing poignancy from long walks through London or sunsets in New Zealand—at least you had the guts to go to a place that didn’t speak English, though of course everyone in Vienna could and often would when they heard your boyfriend’s bad German.
He was not your boyfriend, then. And this is not just about your boyfriend, but you don’t know that yet.
The boy who will become your boyfriend was at first just another American in Vienna on an expensive auf Deutsch adventure. You came from a little liberal arts school in New York and he from a little university in Pennsylvania where—what are the odds?—you went to a creative writing summer high school camp when you were seventeen. And hey! He’s a Creative Writing major too! But is he a writer, you wonder snootily?
The day after you meet him, you write in your journal: he is a young version of the high school English teacher you pined for relentlessly, who made no secret of how bright he found you. This new version says similar things—calls you driven, calls you ambitious, words you hear as sexy because they are as close as you’ll ever get. You’re twenty-one, and while you’ve spent Wednesday through Sunday of every week of college shitfaced in hopes of being seduced, it hasn’t happened.
Soon you and the boy who will become your boyfriend are going to cafes, ostensibly to write, but you aren’t because you’re talking. He tells you about Annandale, New Jersey, the third-richest county in America, and about his girlfriend. He wears her high school ring as a symbol of commitment, but it is loose in all ways. He can’t wait to get married if only to swap this ring for one that actually fits.
You want to get married, too, but right now you want to get laid. Your virginity is your scarlet letter, an irony you don’t appreciate because the beloved English teacher had you read Wuthering Heights instead. He gave soliloquies describing Emily on the windswept moors, surrounded by wolfhounds, plotting novels in her head, and oh, how you swooned.
Before you go to the party, your boyfriend asks if you like the necklace. You lie and say yes. He asks why you keep laughing, and you finally tell him you what you suspected. He laughs, too, and you think he is laughing for the same reasons you are. Engaged over appetizers! Of course he wouldn’t do that. Not him. He thanks you for the DVDs from a nearby Blockbuster that went out of business, and you go to the party, where all the girls coo and awe over your new jewelry.
In January you make a cake for his birthday, a rainbow-batter monstrosity of exorbitant height. He doesn’t eat much of it, but he does eat all the brownies his mother sends from New Jersey. You join Weight Watchers, where you’re the youngest in the room by eons. The women around you bemoan their lost youth, saying I’ll never look as good as I did in my twenties. You joke about this to your boyfriend. He tells you not to take this the wrong way, but he is proud of you. When he says this, your boyfriend is sweaty from another fifteen-mile bike ride. Later that night, he will say this is why he’s too tired to have sex. He goes on bike rides every day.
Your boyfriend loses his job and catches a cold and spends all day on the couch watching the DVDs he brought from home, not the ones you bought him. You resent this—not the DVDs, but how he wants to be coddled and consoled.
There is also this: you go to school but you are learning very little. Your one class is essentially an informal book club where you aren’t required to write or even read; the professor once did not show up. The other has become a pissing match of trauma where your essays are quickly applauded for their quirk, then dismissed for juicier, more meaningful efforts.
Your boyfriend hasn’t been writing at all. He can’t, he says, with you in the house.
Your favorite thing to do is run a bath, lock the door, and cry in the tub, because you are responsible for his hardships. It’s your fault he got fired since he’s here because of you. It’s your fault you can’t feign interest when he shows you some inane post from Reddit. It’s your fault you hate Rush and all his other favorite bands. It’s your fault he can’t come when you fuck, which you never do anymore because you are that repugnant. It’s all your fault you’re ruining everything yet again, yet again.
Then, one day, your boyfriend leaves. He gets in his car and drives away and makes it very clear he is not coming back.
If you shrug it off and go on to live the rest of your life, go to 7.
If you lose your mind, go to 9.
This doesn’t happen and you know it.
Go to 9.
You shouldn’t even be here. There’s no path to this paragraph, yet here you are, poking around where you shouldn’t, snooping and mischievous. You’re picking at scab that ought to be left alone, or it will scar.
The state of Pennsylvania holds a mystical significance for you. Maybe it’s your ancestors, drowned in the Johnstown Flood. Maybe it’s the onslaught of disasters that have beset the state: Three Mile Island, the battle of Gettysburg, the abandoned town of Centralia and its eternal underground fires. Comparatively, the cracking of your heart is a minor catastrophe.
You were seventeen the summer you flew to Harrisburg. You were taxied to the town the dormitories of a small university. Here you met a boy whose hometown was your last name, though you are from Oklahoma and he was from Texas and therefore you were sworn enemies, which pained you, as he was freckled and blazered and debonair and had excellent taste in music. You were besotted instantly, but you were skilled at suppression even then. The week passed without incident.
(You will tell this story over bechteln at Cafe Hawelka when you are gadding about Vienna, drunk and underage and out too late. The boyfriend who is not yet your boyfriend will be there, rapt. He will call you driven. He will call you ambitious.)
You and this boy from Your Last Name, Texas end up going back to the Harrisburg airport together. You were the only two of the summer high school writing camp participants who had to fly home. After check-in and security and snacks and chitchat in the airport terminal, you decided to lay bare your desire and said, “I’m completely infatuated with you.” He smirked. He might have said, I know. When your flight was called to to board, he actually said, Here’s looking at you, kid, and kissed you square on the lips.
This is your first kiss.
When you lose your virginity to the boy who is not then your boyfriend, who is in fact someone else’s boyfriend, it will hurt. You will blurt out I’ve never done this before and he will not believe you. Afterwards, you will walk back to your dorm alone. You will feel unmoored and strange, and when you see the boy later he will say he does not want to break up with his girlfriend. This hurts, too, but you will have sex again that night and the night after, and you will reminisce about the Harrisburg airport where you once were kissed, and you will say you thought you got your story, you thought that kiss couldn’t be topped.
The boy who is not your boyfriend, who is someone else’s boyfriend, will say, I know. I wanted to beat it.
Hearing this, it is more romantic than anything you could ever write. Later, when he leaves with no warning, no discussion, no anything at all, you’ll remember his braggadocio, as if the narrative of your life was his to trump, and your misery will sharpen to a hot and persistent hate. But right now you are just so grateful and stupidly smitten, and when he walks you to the train that will take you to the airport that will take you far from this imperial city where every building looks like a wedding cake, you’ll kiss him and give him a letter confessing your love.
This is how it is done: meet the boy, get married, have the children. This is your plan. This is your path, and it’s begun with a chain of events so plotted and perfect, in a setting so grandiose and beautiful it can never be outdone, it’s true. You seize this narrative. You clutch and refuse to let go.
You should have let go. You didn’t.
There are no wrong answers. There are endings and beginnings. The way makes itself known.
How can it not?
Go to 9.
Congratulations! You’ve been dumped. Your nonfiction class goes on an overnight beach trip the following weekend. The professor brings wine and everyone gets drunk and tells ghost stories. You get drunk and stare moodily at the ocean, feeling profound and tragic.
You spend that weekend drunk. You spend the next weekend drunk. You spend a lot of days drunk. Your drinking blended in when you lived on a campus where the snow banks were taller than you and your lone responsibility was finishing a paper on Willa Cather, but this is a different, solitary drinking. You tread a loop from couch to patio to fridge to couch to fridge. Bottles accumulate. You very much want to die, and you text your boyfriend these sentiments. Sometimes you call him and scream, your voice echoing off the courtyard of the complex on Confederate Drive.
There is also this: a puppy. The puppy happened before your boyfriend left you. He even tried to alert you of his hitherto secret scheming when he spooked you about the commitment of a pet, saying this is your dog, you know. He was carving an exit, even then, but you only heard a challenge, and you’re ambitious, you’re driven.
The puppy is indeed yours and yours alone. You alone must tend him. You alone are his keeper, and you alone care for him. While his care isn’t challenging, earning his love is—he is so small and grumpy, shrieking in his crate, clawing at your pants, shitting everywhere—and satisfying his endless basic needs creates a structure for your days. You feed him. You walk him. You hold him. He bites and scratches and you love him more.
This is why you do not kill yourself.
Lately suicide is something you picture with a very real, very peaceful clarity. While the puppy shreds workshop drafts, you research various methods. Hanging is painful. You refuse to buy a gun. You’ll fuck up your hands if you slit your wrists and fail or bail, and you need those for writing, the only thing you might ever be any good at. Drinking bleach sounds doable. What you’d most like is to sleep and keep sleeping, to never, ever wake up.
Instead, you walk the dog. You drive him around the block. You take him to the park. You also tell the therapist at the university’s health center and you fill the antidepressant prescription covered by student health insurance. In this way, you get by.
Your ex-boyfriend is home with his parents in Annandale, New Jersey, the third-richest county in America, and he will return a week before the lease ends to collect his things. Your mother confirms: he left his shit there? Set it on fire!
This is tempting. Instead, you give the puppy free reign over your ex-boyfriend’s abandoned belongings. He chews a drawer knob to splinters. He humps a Coca-Cola pillow tirelessly. He eats the DVDs. You steal all the quarters from the ex-boyfriend’s coin jar and call it reparations.
Eventually you stop crying all the time. The puppy gets bigger, becomes a dog. You call your mother and she tells you what you need to hear: Straighten up and fly right. Life is not a piece of cake.
If you heed your mother’s wisdom and realize this is all for the best, go to 11.
If it all gets worse before it gets better, go to 12.
Not so fast!
There are no shortcuts here. There is no magic whistle that leads to a warp zone where you are whisked away to some brighter future, some better time and place where none of this happened.
It’s dangerous to go alone. That’s why you do not banish your boyfriend. You set up house together though he doesn’t believe in dishwashers and plays Rush while making awful dinners that are almost as awful as Rush. Still, this is love, or as much as you know of it, and you are not brave enough to refuse it.
You’ll need to turn around. You cannot prevent this. You must confront it.
Return to 3.
You remember the rainbow cake behemoth and bittersweet Sachertorte, the hallmark nachtisch of Vienna. You write a story about a cake decorator and then it occurs to you: you should be a cake decorator, a baker, a maker of confections! Everybody loves dessert!
Your crummy little townhouse becomes ground zero for all things sweet. You whip up batches of lemon bars and nougat bars and Nanaimo bars, you make Bundt cakes and sponge cakes and carrot cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes, fruitcakes. Soon professors are soliciting your work as a baker, not a writer, for the birthdays and graduations of nieces, nephews, and neighbors. Word spreads faster than you can frost, and you start looking into bakery spaces and business loans.
It turns out Socrates was full of shit. The unexamined life is blissful and coated in flour. Your mother’s wrong too—life is a piece of cake. In brief moments you remember your literary aspirations, but then the oven beeps. The eggs need whipping for a tall meringue and the crumb coat’s settled on the two-tier in the fridge. You tighten your apron, shoo the dog out the door, and get back to work.
You move out of the townhouse on Confederate Drive into a furnished apartment where you lie to the landlady about the size of your dog. You’re halfway done with this graduate school fiasco, so you decide to drink your way through the rest of it. The dog sleeps next to you when you pass out on the rug after coming home from bars where you let anybody and everybody kiss you. You tend to pounce on anyone breathing, and while this is partly liberating, it’s mostly stupid, and you remember little to none of it.
You lose your job. Your assets include a couch, a vacuum cleaner, and the dog, so you move home. You bring the dog with you. You are now a graduate school dropout in your parents’ house. This is not ideal.
You sit on the porch of your parent’s home with a beer. Later, you will dump a mini bottle of vodka into a thirty-two-ounce gas station soda. When this is not strong enough, you’ll add another.
If you see the danger in this, go to 13.
If you don’t, go to 14.
There is no 13. You’re not suspicious—you just know what happens.
Go to 14.
You keep on drinking because now you work in a liquor store so it’s part of your job. You see alcoholics every single day, and you learn their names and chat with them at the register and use your powers of suppression on the niggling feeling that you are not so different from them. This becomes apparent when you drive home half-blind with booze, having passed out in a stranger’s house, and you spend the entire day in bed. Eventually you move to the floor and cry until you stop blinking. You watch the ceiling and think about being dead. You make plans for getting dead. They are plans you cannot move to act on, but it calms you, soothes you, pleases you to think of them. The dog is no longer enough of a reason not to be dead because your parents are so much better at taking care of him than you are. They are also much better at taking care of you, because they find you like this and take you to the hospital. You have a problem, they say, you have a problem and we are going to fix it because we love you, and they do, somehow, despite all the ruin and damnation you’ve brought upon everything. You don’t deserve it. You’ll never deserve it, you can’t ever deserve it, but you accept it.
You spend three nights in a psychiatric hospital. You spend six weeks going to group therapy for three hours a day. The problem, while not completely repaired, becomes less of a handicap and more of a condition, a thing you now know you possess and cannot ignore. You stop drinking so much. You learn a lot. You learn more than you’ve ever learned before, and you decide, finally, to return to school and take another swing.
Go to 15.
Here you are! You made it. Or, rather, you’re making it. Right now! Last summer marks five years since you were discharged from the hospital for your psychiatric breakdown and three since you did the damn thing and got the degree. It’s simplest to say you haven’t been back to either since.
You have a new partner, too! That’s what you think of him as—a partner, a mate, someone to halve the mess of living, and golly, but he makes you laugh. You laugh so much—where did all this laughter come from? Every day he comes home from work and the dog—yes, the dog is still there—just goes apeshit with glee at the sight of him, and you are a little jealous, but mostly you are warm. The dog loves him, and you do, too. You love each other fat and skinny, with a job or without, in the up and down and side to side unplannable everydayness of how life goes. It’s not happily ever after but it’s happily right now, and now, and now, and now. He buys you jewelry—a ring made of an Oklahoma quarter, earrings shaped like rocket ships. You’re thirty-one now, and your best moments are the plainest: the mutts and your partner and a pizza and the couch.
How did this happen? What will happen next? You have no idea. All you know is that you don’t know, and you probably never will.
You’ve made it this far. You might as well keep going.