My boyfriend hit me in the face with a book. It was an accident, his hitting me. He only meant to hand me the book. He meant to hand the book back to me. But my face was in its path, he said. It was in its way, he said. And so the book connected with my face. And so here we are.
I guess I must have closed my eyes. Because I didn't see the book hit my face. But I heard it hit, if you can imagine. It made a sound against my face. I can't describe the sound it made. But imagine, if you can, the sound.
Then I watched at the mirror as a red mark spread across my face. It transformed my face into another face. By which I mean a face I knew. By which I mean a lot of things. It was an accident, his hitting me in the face with the book. Accident, he said, dropping the book, holding up his hands. Accident, I later said to my brother. Bullshit, my brother said. He hit you with a fucking book, he said.
As kids, my brother did his thing, I did mine. His things were, for the most part, boy things. Mine were, for the most part, not. But they were not what I would call girl things. I was not a girl who did girl things. I was a girl who worked on puzzles. These were puzzles that took weeks to solve. And when I solved a puzzle, and I always solved them, I felt brilliant.
After my boyfriend went back to sleep, I walked outside. Outside was the rest of the world. Outside were the people of the world. It was a regular day for people. There was work and there were the other things that people do. And there I was with them, walking with them, through rain.
My father wanted to become an astronaut. But he did not become an astronaut. Because, he said, he would not have passed the physical. So my father went into business. He became a businessman. There were sales and deals and men like my father. There was a product of some sort he sold. It was nothing like being an astronaut. But there was hope for my brother, my father said. He could still become one, he said.
My boyfriend was brutally killed in his dreams. Sometimes he was stabbed. Sometimes someone's hands were squeezing tightly around his throat. And there were zombies too. And witches too. And sharp-toothed animals chasing him through woods. It was called night terrors, what he had, and he would wake up screaming and run through the room. On the worst of these nights, my boyfriend and I were terrified. We never knew what was going on. We would often stay up all night, those nights, waiting for the room to turn light. But they were often funny, those nights, the next day.
We had all been out the night before. It was me, my boyfriend, my brother, and a girl. It was an upscale bar my boyfriend liked. My brother did not like upscale things. He liked the trashy bars in his part of the city. He liked the trashy girls in those trashy bars. My brother thought my boyfriend was a prick. And my boyfriend thought my brother was a prick. But I should say it was my birthday. That we were at the upscale bar to celebrate my birthday. My boyfriend bought the first round of drinks. And my brother bought another round. And my boyfriend bought another. And at some point my brother pushed up his sleeve. He wanted to arm-wrestle my boyfriend. He said he would wrestle him through the fucking table. My brother was big. He worked at a gym. It was a gym where big guys went to get bigger. My boyfriend was not so big. But he was tougher than my brother. He was tough in another way. The bar was crowded and people were staring. My brother stuck his elbow to the table. Then my boyfriend stuck his elbow to the table. Then my brother and my boyfriend gripped each other's hands.
I walked all the way to my brother's part of the city. At my brother's place, I rang the bell, then rang again. Then I called his name from the street. I was surprised to hear the front door's click. Surprised to see my brother standing in his doorway. And before I was even down the hallway, he was looking too hard at my face. It was terrible, how he was looking. Terrible, how banged up I was. I had seen those banged-up women before. I had seen them on streets, all terrible looking, all banged up. It was wrong, the way my brother was looking. Dumb, how we were just standing there. I said, Is your girl here still. He said, She's not my girl. But is she here, I said. Fuck you, he said. I knew my brother way too well. I knew he fucked her and sent her home. He often fucked them and showed them the door. I held up my hand for a high five.
My brother was that guy, always holding up his. I said, High five. But he left me hanging, my hand up high. There was a day I had solved a difficult puzzle. And I went into my brother's bedroom and told my brother how I had solved it. And my brother said he understood how I had solved the puzzle. And he suggested a different way of solving it. And his way of solving it was somehow better than mine. And it was in this moment I saw his brilliance. I hadn't seen this brilliance before. And I knew it was more brilliant than mine.
I should say again we were in the bar to celebrate this thing that went right, once, years before, the thing being, simply, my being there, that miraculous spark that kept on going, and there I was.
And I should say that my brother won, of course. He slammed my boyfriend's knuckles into the table as hard as he could. People in the bar applauded. The girl kissed my brother on his mouth. My brother went to buy a round of drinks. My boyfriend was angry and he looked very angry. Your brother's the biggest prick, he said. But my brother was not the biggest prick. He was buying us a round of drinks. He's not the biggest prick, I said. There are way bigger pricks, I said. And my boyfriend said, What does that mean. And I guess this was when the fight began. My boyfriend said, It must mean something. You must mean me, he said.
It was dumb how we were just standing there. I said, Let me in, but my brother didn't move. I said, Let me fucking in, but he just stood there staring at my face. So I pushed past my brother and went to the kitchen. His kitchen was the worst kitchen ever. It could barely fit two people at once. It could barely fit even one. The kitchen table was not in the kitchen. It was outside the kitchen. It was against a wall in the other room. In the refrigerator was a case of beer. I took a beer. My brother squeezed into the kitchen. He grabbed my arm. He shook the beer from my hand. It rolled to somewhere, to under something. Then my brother pulled me from the refrigerator. He pulled me from the kitchen. He pushed me into a chair. Then he sat in a chair. And we sat, like anyone, on any morning, at the kitchen table.
My mother left three dolls in the house and my father gave them to me. They were my mother's dolls from when she was a kid. But I was not a girl who played with dolls. And I did not want my mother's things, besides. So I gave the dolls to my brother. They wore dresses from other countries. My brother named them girls' names. He kept them in a row on his dresser. I don't think he ever played with the dolls. I think he just wanted to keep them like that, in a row.
My boyfriend walked ahead of me home from the bar. I was fine with not walking next to him. We were in a fight, and I was fine. I was used to our fights. I was used to the door slamming in my face. I almost loved when the door slammed in my face. Because it meant my boyfriend would sleep on the couch. On my brother's kitchen table were dried dots of something red. There were crumbs of something white. It was a mess, the table, a mess, the whole room. My brother reached toward me as if to grab me. What happened to your face, he said. And he could have grabbed my shirt or my arm, but he didn't. What happened to your face, I said. I was pushing the crumbs into the dots. My brother was watching me do this. Tell me, he said. You tell me, I said. He was watching me pick off each red dot, which was made from something, ketchup, pizza, I don't know. He said, Tell me. He was getting angry. I didn't care if he was angry. He had every reason to be angry. It was an accident, I said.
My father's dirty underthings were always all over the house. There was nowhere to go except for my bedroom, where his dirty underthings were not. So one day I collected all of his dirty underthings in a bag. And I took the bag out to the yard. And I shook the bag out onto the grass. It looked absurd, all those dirty underthings all over the yard. But it made me laugh for a second, the utter absurdity of this.
I slept better when my boyfriend slept on the couch. That night I had slept straight through the night. But in the morning a bird flew in through the bedroom window. It was filthy, circling, crashing crazy into the walls. I was screaming for my boyfriend to help. I felt dumb screaming for help. I felt dumb screaming at all. The bird left streaks of dark on the ceiling. Feathers popped out from its wings. The bird is not a metaphor. It's not meant to symbolize anything. It was just a bird.
I should say there was one puzzle I never solved as a kid. In it, a hotel has an infinite number of rooms. There is someone staying in each of the rooms. Then an infinite number of people walk in. They each want a room, and, though the rooms are filled, they each get one. The question, of course, is how.
I picked at the red dots on the table. They came up from the table in perfect circles. My brother said, Stop that. I said, Stop what. He pointed to my hands. He said, Stop that. It was like he was the one older and I was the one younger. It was like he was tough and I was not. I said, Where's your girl. He said, She's not my girl. There was no reason to talk about the girl. She was trash like all of the girls. I said, She wouldn't fuck you. He said, Yeah, right. I said, Yeah, right. She wouldn't fuck you, I said. Then my brother slammed his fist into the table. The crumbs on the table jumped, and I would have laughed if things had been different. But I didn't like how my brother was acting. He was trying to act tough. And he looked tough. But that didn't mean he was tough. He said, Tell me the truth. I said, What truth. I said, I told you the truth. I said, There is no truth. But what did I know about truth. I was only fucking around. And my brother knew I was fucking around. So he reached across the table. He grabbed my arm. He squeezed too hard. He said, Tell me the truth. I said, Let me go. But he squeezed my arm harder. I hadn't thought he could squeeze it harder. I could feel the bone in my arm. I could feel the bone about to snap. He said, Tell me the truth. I said, Let me go. I felt like I would cry. But I was not the type of girl to cry. So I said, He hit me in the face with a book.
Several times, my father threw the dolls into the trash. And my brother would find the dolls in the trash, clean them up, and stand them, again, on his dresser. Then my father would sit my brother at the kitchen table. Boy, he would say. You are not your father's son, he would say. No one will save you, he would say. There's no great man in the clouds, he would say. And my brother would get this look on his face. It was the same dumb look he often got. Though at that one point I did see brightness. I never told this to my father. That I saw brightness at that one point.
My father had been dying for a very long time. It was something with his lungs. They sounded like a storm. They were going to stop working, we had been told. We waited years for them to stop working. And when they did stop working, he called my brother and said, Pray for me, boy. Then he called me and said, Pray for me, girl. But neither of us knew how to pray.
My brother said, He hit you with a fucking book. I said, Yes. I said, No. He said, Which. He said, Yes or no. It was an accident, I said. An accident, he said. Bullshit, he said. There are no accidents, he said. Bullshit, I said. There are only accidents, I said.
The bird was crashing into the walls. I got out of bed. I took a book from a shelf. I waved the book around. I swatted the bird through the window. I walked out of the bedroom. I was still holding the book in the hallway. I was still holding the book, in the room in which my boyfriend was sleeping on the couch. And I was still holding the book standing over my boyfriend as he slept. And I stood there, still, still holding the book, as he opened his eyes, looking terrified.
I don't know what I was thinking. Perhaps I wasn't thinking. Perhaps I was only feeling. Perhaps I was feeling like a guy. And what does that mean. I don't know what that means.
My brother let go of my arm and slammed his fist again into the table. And when the crumbs on the table jumped this time, it wasn't funny. I stood and said, Fuck this. I said, I'm going. And my brother said, Where are you going. I said, I'm going somewhere. And my brother laughed. He said, You're going nowhere.
Once, I was bigger than my brother. And I knew he would one day be bigger than I was. And I knew that once he was bigger than I was, he always would be bigger. Because I would not get bigger than I was. But I would always be the bigger prick. Because I was the biggest prick I knew.
I watched from my bedroom window as my father found his underthings all over the yard. I could tell he was angry by the way he stomped toward the house. And by the sound the door made. And by the weight of his steps in the hallway. Then I heard him open my brother's door. Then I heard my brother's voice. I heard my brother's body hit the wall.
And did I try to stop my father. I suppose I did not. I suppose I had my reasons for letting him throw my brother around.
At some point, my father moved away. We were older then, and he moved to another city. He moved to the city for a woman. And then he left that woman. And then there was a second woman. And then he left that woman too. And then there was a third. And then he left that woman. And then there was a fourth. After he died, we met the fourth. She called herself your father's friend. She told us things we had to do. There were people to meet and people to pay. There were papers to sign and objects to put into boxes. And when every last paper had been signed and every last object had been boxed, she drove us to the airport in her very big car and sad music played and she told us she prayed for our father. And on any other day, we would have laughed. We would have told her what he told us. That no one will save you. That there's no great man in the clouds.
And on the plane going home, we were very happy. Our father had died, and we had been terribly sad. But on the plane going home, I don't think we had ever been that happy. We were so happy we were going home, we would not have cared if the plane had crashed. We drank whiskey out of tiny bottles. We spent all our money on the whiskey. We were drunk and we were fucking happy. And when the plane landed, we were still laughing. It was probably something not even funny. It was probably something pretty dark. We probably shouldn't have been laughing at all. But we were still laughing waiting for our bags. Some of the bags were our father's bags. These bags were filled with our father's things. They were coming around with the other bags. One of them had a dent in it. One of them had a stain. And then we were no longer laughing. We were no longer happy but just absurdly sad.
My brother smoked his first cigarette at the kitchen table. He was ten and the cigarette was unfiltered, and he took a long drag, and my father said, Boy, and my father was proud. And when my brother started choking, my father laughed his ass off, and I laughed my ass off too. My brother just looked so dumb, not able to stop that choking. He looked so dumb, the smoke just pouring out of his dumb head, my brother, who was not my father's son.
I was standing over my boyfriend. It had started to rain. And I liked, in that moment, the rain. I mean I liked, in that moment, the sound of the rain. And I liked the weight of the book in my hand. But it must have seemed like a night terror to him. It must have seemed like a dream of being killed. Because in seconds my boyfriend was off the couch. Then he was the one holding the book.
We were standing at the kitchen table. We were playing the dumb parts we played. It was like I was trying to play a woman, and he was trying to play a man. It was like I was trying to play the victim, and he was trying to play the savior. He said, I'm going to kill him. I said, Then kill him. But my brother would not kill my boyfriend. Because he was my brother, not my father. And so my brother would stand at the kitchen table. And I would stand at the kitchen table. And eventually, my brother would go to his job. He would pick up weights. He would haul out trash. But for now, he was going nowhere. And I was going nowhere. For now, we were putting on a show. It was a show we put on for each other. It was a show we put on for our father. It was a show we put on for our mother. It was utterly absurd, our show. Just a little girl playing little girl. Just a big guy playing big guy. And who was the girl. And who was the guy. It was so confusing, our show. We didn't always stick to our lines. We didn't always know our lines.
I should have started with this: A bird flew into the bedroom. And followed with: It was flying crazy into the walls. Feathers floated from the ceiling. I swatted at the bird with a book. I swatted it back through the window.
I should have started with this: I was standing in the hallway. And followed with: I was standing over my boyfriend's sleeping body. I wasn't thinking as I stood over his body. I was just holding a book up high while he slept.
One morning my father threw my brother's dolls into the trash. And this time he locked the trash in the trunk of his car. And this time my brother cried all morning, and my father didn't knowwhat to do. At some point they had a private talk. My father was sitting on my brother's bed. My brother was crying on the floor. I was standing in the doorway. Boys only, my father said, and slammed the door in my face. I suddenly felt like the only person in the world. I felt like I was standing on the moon. I screamed, Fuck you, at the door. I screamed, Fuck you, and kicked the door. I screamed, Fuck you pricks, and kicked a hole right through the fucking door.
Later that day, my father took us for pizza. And after we ate our pizza, he took us to a toy store. It was the biggest toy store in the city. My father bought me a book on puzzles. He bought my brother a rocket to build. My brother, for whom there was still hope. He could still become an astronaut.
My brother smoked his second cigarette at the kitchen table. He smoked his third cigarette at the kitchen table. He smoked his fourth, and it was terrible to watch him smoke. It was absolutely brutal. But did I try to stop him. He was so determined. I couldn't stop him.
And did I try to stop my boyfriend as the book was rushing toward my face. Let's just say I was working through something. I was making up for something.
This had nothing to do with my mother. When I stood at the mirror, I did not see my mother's face. It was not that at all. My mother was not a banged-up woman. She was a brilliant woman. She left the house. And I could not have stopped her.
Just before he died, my father came back to the city for business. We met him at a trashy bar. He looked old. He could barely talk. He coughed the whole night. Everyone knew he was going to die. The bartender gave him water. She gave him a look. She gave us all that look. And my father grabbed the bartender's arm and pulled her in toward him. And through all his coughing, he was able to say something to her. I don't know why I thought he would say something nice, like thank you or something like that. It wasn't like he was that type. He did not say something nice. He said something about her body. Something about her ass. Her amazing ass. My father said to me, Look at that ass. I looked at the bartender's face. It was alarming how much she hated us. And my boyfriend snapped at my father for this. And my brother snapped at my boyfriend. And I snapped at my brother. And as the bartender walked away, my brother looked at her ass. And my boyfriend looked at her ass. And I, as well, looked at her ass. And it was amazing.
There was a night my boyfriend waked me, screaming. Then he was rushing through the room, and I was screaming too. Then he was in the hallway, then at the door, then running down a flight of stairs, and I was running after him, screaming, Don't. Outside were cars and people on the street. My boyfriend ran out, screaming, They want me. I screamed, No one wants you. He screamed, Yes they do. Then he was running into traffic. Then I was running too. Then someone else screamed. Tires screeched. I grabbed my boyfriend's arm.
Next we were standing on the sidewalk. People were staring at my boyfriend. My boyfriend asked how he had gotten there. I guess he meant to the sidewalk. But either way, I did not have an answer. Because it was just too huge a question. Because it was probably a miracle. I mean how the fuck did I get there. How did anyone get there on that street. Some miraculous spark that just kept on. I knew nothing about miracles. I was not the one to ask. But I knew how to get my boyfriend up the stairs.
I could have solved that puzzle at any point. It was a nothing puzzle to solve. But I waited years to solve it. Because I did not want to solve it. A hotel with an infinite number of rooms. I just loved the thought of that hotel. Just imagine that hotel.
Look. What if there was no bird. What if there was no bird flying through the room. What if there was only me and the book. What if I made up the bird.
And what if I was holding the book like this. And what if I was standing there like this. And what in made a face like this. And what if I felt like a zombie. And what if I felt like an animal.
And what if I felt just like a guy. And what if he opened his eyes like this. What if he looked at me like this. I said to my brother, You have never seen terror like this.
I should have started with this: After my boyfriend hit me in the face with the book, everything stopped. And followed with: I mean the rain and every blade of grass and every leaf on every tree and air and light and time and
I should have started with this: After my boyfriend hit me in the face with the book, everything started. And followed with:
I should say there were good times with my boyfriend. The morning after he ran to the street, we laughed pretty hard. We laughed at his saying, They want me. And at my saying, No one wants you. And we laughed at the sound the tires made. And at the person who screamed. And at his dumb-as-shit questions. And my dumb-as-shit answers. We laughed pretty much all morning.
But one day I would be at my brother's again. I would have another mark on my face. The mark would be on the same side as the other mark. But it would be flatter than the other mark. It would not be from a book this time. And I would know something then that I hadn't, before that day, known.
And on that day, as my brother stood to leave, I would tell him the unsolved puzzle. I would hope that he would solve it. I would hope his brilliance would return. I didn't want my brother to be my father. I wanted him to be my mother. The question, I would say to him, is how. How, I would say, but he wouldn't care. He would leave his place. He would find my boyfriend. And I would sit there, waiting.
But before that day was this day, and it seemed the rain would never stop.
And streets would flood and bridges would fall and people would die, and no one ever predicted all that rain.
And did you want to hit him, my brother said.
I was not that type of girl.
I was my father's daughter, not my father.
I didn't hit him, I said.
And the rain would fall for thirty days, and it seemed the rain would never stop.
But did you want to hit him, my brother said.
And a day would come that would be the last.
Not the last of the rain, but the last of the days.
And no great man would come to save us.
No great man would ever come.
And I would hold up my hand for a high five.
And my brother would hold up his.
© Susan Steinberg 2013
This electronic version of ‘Underthings’ appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the short-story collection Spectacle by Susan Steinberg, published by Graywolf Press, 2013. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Susan Steinberg is the author of the short-story collections Hydroplane and The End of Free Love. She was the 2010 United States Artists Ziporyn Fellow in Literature, and she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, Boulevard, and The Massachusetts Review. Her most recent collection, Spectacle, published by Graywolf Press, came out in 2013. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.