by Natalie Beisner
This essay won 1st prize in our 2020 Summer Contest in creative nonfiction. Here’s what judge Dawn Davies had to say about it.
This essay is a switchblade. You first look at it and think it is a cell phone, or a comb. Or maybe a candy bar or coupon booklet, but within two paragraphs readers are certain: Yep. It’s a switchblade. And we’ve been cut to ribbons.
The level of honesty the narrator delivers provides an emotionally visceral approach to her self-examination of her past relationships with men, and we are along for a ride that feels voyeuristic at first, but eventually allows us to feel a deep empathy for her as she settles into both her understanding of herself and her place in the world. It’s vicious in its honesty and the prose is full of electricity and anger and exquisite detail.
The pace is driving and the repetition and pattern lead us to a resigned triumph, allowing readers to exit the ride feeling connected with the writer and her experience, thinking about the energy of it long after we have left, the marks still on us.
Because I spent hours carefully picking out a leather-bound notebook and paid by the letter to have the cover engraved with his full name, middle initial included. Because I’d even attempted to wrap it before finally giving up in favor of a gift bag and some gratuitously happy reindeer tissue paper and a card attached saying I was certain it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see his name on the cover of a book. Because he said “thank you” and put the journal back in the bag and the bag on the peanut-shelled floor of the bar, before handing me a brand-new copy of Bradbury’s short stories—although I’d never read any Bradbury, had never spoken of him at all in the year we’d been sleeping together—and said he was sorry it wasn’t wrapped, he hadn’t known I was getting him a nice gift, but I waved that away and smiled as I put the book in my purse and my purse on the back of my chair. Because I knew better than to look for a card or an inscription on the inside cover. Because we did not discuss it again. Because I bought another round before I took him back to my place.
Because years earlier, when I was twenty-one and a new university transfer, I got in a different man’s truck after a play rehearsal and let him drive me back to his apartment to smoke me out—even though I don’t smoke, and I didn’t know him at all—and we started making out, and he started choking me, and I couldn’t breathe, but I just lay there waiting for him to loosen his grip from around my neck and then his belt, the buttons on my blue jeans and finally the waistband of my purple cotton underwear. Because later that night he drove me back to the deserted campus parking structure and promised to text. Because he said he was glad he had found someone who was “into the same stuff” he was, and even though I was too young to know what stuff I was into, or whether I was into what we’d done, I smiled as he drove away. Because that was exactly what I’d wanted to hear. Because I didn’t know enough yet to know he didn’t mean it. Because he never texted, but he never stopped smiling at me in the hallways at school. Because I never stopped smiling back.
Because I got a job at a bikini bar, where girls in lingerie slung watered-down cocktails, and one night after my shift I let a customer—not one of my regulars—take me out to the nicest dinner I’d ever had. Because I drank and don’t remember anything other than I kept worrying he might have a wife and kids. Because he dressed like a Macy’s catalogue dad, and after dinner he drove me back to my car, his right hand kneading my breast, and he sighed and said “I bet you’d be a lot of fun,” like I was an open invitation that he just couldn’t accept, and it struck me that I’ve never once in my life felt like a lot of fun. Because everything always means the world to me, but I didn’t say so. Because dinner had cost more than I made in a week, and anyway, a lot of fun sounded nice for a change.
Because on a day-off from the bar, I got the pixie cut I’d wanted forever, and I felt unstoppable when I met up with some new girlfriends for lunch on the patio of a Mediterranean café. Because I’ve never really had girlfriends. Because I’m better with men. Because with men I know where to put my hands and what to do with my tongue and what to give to make them love me for a while—until that is, a man walks by, like he did that day, and looks me right in the eye, before turning to his companion to loudly say, “That’s the hottest dyke I’ve ever seen.” Because my new friends fell silent—their hair long and silky, their pretty faces slack-jawed, stricken on my behalf. Because it was obvious he was talking to the girl with the boy-cut who was suddenly a little less unstoppable. Because when I should’ve been angry, I was secretly ashamed that I didn’t look hot enough to be straight, but even worse—I was flattered. Because after all, he had called me hot, which made me all tingly like I always get when a man notices my looks, like a bitch, hungry as hell, ready to lap it all up, whatever scraps are thrown my way. Because then I know it’s safe to keep existing in the world.
Because a couple years later, the summer I was twenty-six, after I’d learned my lesson and grown my hair out and moved to LA, I fell in love for the first time. Because he was older and told me I felt like home, he wanted me to be the center of his world, the first to hear his stories. Because according to him, he was trying to be in love with me but wasn’t quite there yet. Because that was more than I’d ever gotten from a man, and I was hopeful, even when I discovered—after I’d started sleeping with him—that he already had a lover, but he assured me it was OK. Because she knew about me, and anyway things were rocky between them. Because he would text me to come over and hold me while he cried over this other woman I’d never met but hated. Because I would listen and stroke his hair, and later, let him climb on top of me once or twice before he finally fell asleep. Because that’s what you do, I thought, when you’re the woman who gets to hear his stories first—you take them however they come, good and bad, both mother and lover rolled into one.
Because it wasn’t too long before he said he wanted to be just friends. Because I went along with it. Because I was desperate for another chance, until one night he let slip that he was already sleeping with someone new, someone he’d always assured me was “just a friend.” Because hearing that made my heart drop to the pit of my stomach and right through it, not stopping until it hit the hardwood floor of the apartment below, where it shattered into a thousand pieces, but quietly, so it wouldn’t wake the neighbors, and I didn’t say anything—just slapped him, twice, as hard as I could, which I regretted immediately and forever—even the next day when I found out he’d started sleeping with her while he’d still been with me, unprotected. Because even then, wild in my rage and heartbreak, betrayed, I wished for another chance—not to get in a third slap, no, but only to hold him and his stories about terrible women, of which I was surely now one.
Because that fall, after I’d cut off all my hair a second time thinking it might also permanently sever the ties reaching from my chest to where the man had been, I found another guy who was so reminiscent of the man who’d left, that all the pieces like shards in my chest melted when he told me he loved my pixie, that in fact it made me sexy. Because I wasn’t surprised when he never made good on his promise to take me to the free museum opening downtown but instead offered me GHB in a half-empty bottle of kiwi-strawberry vitamin water. Because later, while we were lost in a haze, rolling in my bed, he said he wanted to feel me for real—just a little bit—and before I could answer, he slipped in and out, so quick—almost like it never happened. Because the next time we hung out, he laughed and called me an alcoholic. Because I’d been drinking at work in anticipation of seeing him. Because I’ve often been told that makes me a lot more fun.
Because a year or so later, I was walking home from work one night when a stranger outside a taco truck called me to come back, baby, to take a bite of his taco. Because I ignored him and kept walking, and he yelled after me, over the small crowd, that it was fine, I wasn’t that hot anyway, which made my cheeks flare and my heart race and my feet stop, turn around, and walk towards him. Because I yelled back and gave him a piece of my mind, although I don’t remember which piece exactly. Because he spat back that word— “alcoholic”—and here, I thought I’d been hiding it so well. Because the truth is I had been sneaking and drinking at work, whiskey in a peach Snapple bottle, tucked under the host stand. Because I was once again freshly dumped—this time by a coworker who had calmly explained to me one night that if he really liked me, he would feel the urge to walk me out from his apartment to my car, and he was sorry, but he just didn’t feel that urge. Because maybe I really was not that hot anyway, maybe I was an alcoholic, but it was clear one stung far worse than the other. Because the next night before work I put on—like armor—more makeup, less clothing, I carried my Snapple bottle with me like a weapon.
Because later that summer, during a bizarre month-long theatre intensive, a guy I barely knew came up to me, looked me right in the eyes—his own glazed over as if in a trance—and pronounced me “a big black hole trying to fill yourself up.” Because he saw right through me—this silly stranger—with words like daggers that marked me—scarlet-faced and ashamed—with a thousand tiny, bleeding holes. Because I’d never heard anything more true. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill myself up. I’ve swallowed but wanted to spit. I’ve stayed but wanted to go. I’ve let my body do the talking, but mostly it’s lied. My hands, my mouth, my whole self so full of men and drink, there was never any room for me. I am glutted with all the things I could’ve said, should’ve done, the type of woman I might’ve become. In that moment, I opened my mouth—to scream, I thought, or maybe to vomit—but what came out was a bit of phlegm. Tiny and flightless, it plummeted to the pavement nowhere near the guy, who was already turning—unseeing—away from me. I hadn’t really been aiming for him anyway, I don’t think. But boy, did it feel good to get it out.
Recently I got rid of that Bradbury, which sat—heavy and unread—on my bookshelf through five years and four apartments. If I haven’t read it by now, I probably never will. But I can always get it again. I can change my mind. I just needed a little room on the shelf. There are so many other stories in the world—not just the ones men gave me, which I treated like gospel for so long, and the men like gods. Perhaps one day there will be room enough for a leather-bound journal engraved with my full name, middle initial included. Or maybe the whole damn name. I’ve got things to put out of myself and into the world, after all. So many wondrous things, in fact, I almost know for certain it won’t be the last time I see my name on the cover of a book.
Natalie Beisner is a Los Angeles-based storyteller and writer. She has appeared in ArtAscent, antonym, The Selkie, and VISIO. Her work has been recognized by Kaleidoscope: A Reflection on Women’s Journeys and WOW! Women on Writing, and she recently won The Moth StorySLAM.
Charles E. Humes, Jr. has been a professional fine artist for over forty years. He’s a recipient of multiple grants and fellowships, including the State of Florida’s Individual Artist Grant in painting, and a Smithsonian Southern Arts Federation Print-making Fellow. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in major galleries and universities, and have received numerous awards and honors throughout the USA.