Alice Comes Undone
The year Alice developed breasts and started to bleed her world became extremely loud. She was fifteen; not quite a woman but biology would have it differently. This was the time when boys started to notice Alice, and they had an urgent need to tell her about her body and what they could do to it. Clutching her books to her chest, she would walk past men who whispered their wants — it wasn’t even eight in the morning and already she had to navigate the goings-on underneath a man’s trousers. Most days all she wanted to do was stretch a wall over her skin. Alice lived in Los Angeles and wore complicated sweaters.
Kevin Gray’s mother was dying from a kind of cancer that squeezed your organs so tight you could hardly breathe. Her body was a crowded house of infection, flashing no vacancy signs, and Kevin’s father told him, in between conference calls with Asia, there’s no time. Doctors attempted an experimental surgery where they vacuumed Kevin’s mother’s insides and torched them for a week with radiation in hopes the chemicals would wedge themselves into places where a man’s hands couldn’t go. Kevin’s father’s assistant completed insurance forms over hold music. Kevin’s father pointed to his phone and said I have to take this. Kevin’s father mouthed to the receptionist, put it on the card, doll. Pacing the length of the hospital corridor, Kevin’s father looked at everyone but his son when he said, I don’t have it in me to be her wet nurse. I need you to step up to the plate. Kevin lit a cigarette, was told there’s no smoking in here, and tried to remember the last time he and his father played baseball.
For months, the only word Kevin’s mother could mouth was hurt — hurt like dishes left in cold, grey water, hurt like a television left on mute all day, hurt like the hour Kevin’s father spent on the 405 confiding that he never loved his wife, not even a little, and would Kevin forgive this transgression, this small confession of a heart never possessed or given. Hurt like a metal locker where girls slipped Kevin notes and he reshuffled his books for the classes he slept through. Hurt like the hours later when counselors opened and closed their blinds, and Kevin’s pain failed to diminish. Kevin asked aloud to anyone, everyone, what did his father feel if not love? Kevin and his mother spent evenings in the dark, throbbing.
Alice met a woman on the Internet who served time in prison for killing her baby. Technically the woman didn’t murder her infant — Luz was convicted of negligent homicide, punished for having sex with two men in one night while her child crawled out of its crib, fell and fractured its skull. While Luz didn’t do the breaking she was responsible for what had been broken, for a dead child abandoned in a room for two days before anyone noticed. Luz had another kid, an eight-year-old boy who felt to her like a stranger, and this is why she spent her waking hours online trying to architect a life she wished she had. The plan failed. Luz and Alice found one another when they both posted photographs of bathtubs filled with water on Instagram, along with the caption: Forwarding address. What are the odds? Luz cleaned the houses of moneyed college graduates while Alice hoped she wouldn’t be around long enough to wonder what she’d be doing for a living. Recently Luz moved to a small basement apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, and everything she owned had the air of as seen on TV while Alice Face-timed from inside the kind of closet that belonged on the pages of US Weekly. They were beautiful, built, and terribly sad.
Brooklyn was worse than the eight years Luz spent in juvenile — the neighborhood’s punishments were personal and severe. No one knows me in Queens, Luz said. I’m lonely. Alice’s house was dark save for the glow from her computer screen. There’s a boy in my class and his mother is dying of cancer. We’re not talking the pink t-shirts, walk-for-a-cure kind of cancer. This is the kind from which no one returns. So I come home today and find my mother in the kitchen on her knees, giving the dying woman’s husband a blowjob. I don’t know if she’s being compassionate or cruel, but I don’t really care. Luz stared into the camera, wiping away tears because a few years ago, she would’ve been that woman on her knees.
Now Kevin’s mother asked him to comb dirt over her face. Her skin was ashen, fallen like snow. Kevin was sixteen, too young for good posture and navigating the language of burial. I never loved your mother, not even a little. His parents were never valves from the same heart.
Kevin removed his clothes and curled in a ball under his mother’s bed while she slept. He could hear the steady rise and fall of her chest, the wheezing of air and how she coughed it out. When Kevin was small she’d hide behind a curtain. Every year, new furniture — nothing in his house ever remained. They were playing hide and seek and Kevin found her behind the sweep of white fabric, and he remembered how the morning framed her in gold and white — his mother was his geography. Where did all the old furniture go? Last year his father fucked Kevin’s girlfriend on a blue Chesterfield and paid for the abortion and a Hermès bag. Put it on the card, doll.
Kevin lit a cigarette and the night nurse said you can’t smoke in here, son, and his mother woke and said he can smoke where he damn well pleases and he’s not your son. His mother didn’t say what everybody already knew — their family money funded the wing where she lay dying. Kevin and his mother threaded the smoke between their fingers and before she drifted he hid behind the curtain and said in his small boy voice, I’m here, ma. Can you see me?
Two days after Kevin’s mother died in her sleep, his father took a conference call in the limo during the funeral — I have to take this, son — and kept his golf clothes in a garment bag in the trunk because business was business and this was how deals got done. Kevin couldn’t cry even when they lowered her coffin all the way down, even at the wake, when Kevin pressed his cheek against hers. Pull me close to your shirt and get a good taste of my cheek. At that moment, Kevin thought about what he could and could not take.
I’m so sorry for your loss. We respect your privacy during this tragic time. Your mother had a good life. She was a beautiful woman. We’re praying for your family. You are in our thoughts. Is there anything we can do? What can we do? The deadline for college applications is right around the corner. Have you thought about Stanford? I know someone on the board. Let me do this one thing for you — it’s the least I can do. My god, your mother — at least she’s not in any pain. At least she’s in a better place.
When Your Mother Dies and Strangers Offer The God They Don’t Believe in, Platitudes, and their Buddy On the Board. When Your Father Hosts a Wake at The Beverly Hilton. When Everyone Whispers The Catering Wasn’t as Good as It Used to Be.
At school, Alice watched the parade of students mumble platitudes to the bereaved. Matt Highland patted Kevin’s shoulder and said Bro, I’m sorry for your loss. Kevin laughed so hard he cried laugh riot tears and said bro. I didn’t lose my mother — she died of cancer. It’s not like she’s going to end up in the lost and found like some fucking shoe. Yeah, bro, my mother was a mismatched sock, a pen bleeding ink.
Even though Alice skipped a grade she was struggling with trigonometry because she didn’t understand the fundamental relationship between sides and angles.
Kevin had already taken elliptical geometry and the week after his mother’s death, he paused in front of Alice’s desk after the bell rang and said, parallels don’t exist. There comes a point, Alice, when all lines intersect. Know what I mean? Alice didn’t and said as much. Kevin lit a cigarette, smoked it, and nobody told him you can’t smoke in the building because Kevin’s mother just died of cancer. Kevin lowered his voice, but he didn’t really have to because they were alone in an empty classroom and said, you know there’s a pool going. People are placing bets when you’ll do it and how. My money’s on a razor in the bathtub because you seem like the type. Are you that type, Alice? Alice’s lips trembled. Of course everyone knew and of course they didn’t care and Alice’s mother was a failed soap opera actress, which meant she might as well have tended bar at TJI Friday’s. Alice tugged at the ends of her hair, which were already breaking, and Kevin smoked his cigarette down to the filter because he was already broken. You know I’m just kidding, right? Kevin said.
Alice remembered a day in second grade when Kevin brought in a stack of alternative greeting cards his mother had designed. An employee of Happy Time Greeting Cards, Kevin’s mother had been responsible for a card’s insides. Her boss put her on the happy card beat and wondered aloud why a woman like her (her family owned half of Sherman Oaks!) needed a job like this. She responded by requesting the somber card beat because she had ideas. Collegiate NoDoz overdoses accompanied by an audio clip from the Saved By the Bell episode, “Jessie’s Song”, the Donner party reenactment that turned into The Shining, or the sudden pancaking of Tibby the Cat due to a slow-moving vehicle — because this was life and these things happened. Unfazed, her boss said Happy Time wasn’t in the business of kitsch, that the most he could do was assign her the Get Well Soon beat. Alice remembered how swiftly their second-grade teacher, Mrs. Meyer, collected the alternative cards that Kevin’s mother had made. Alice loved the cards and wondered if his mother had done anything on cults since a third of their class had lost someone to Scientology.
Kevin’s mother wasn’t like anyone they’d ever known. She didn’t lunch at the Brentwood Country Mart or wear pastel Chanel (because everyone knew that only the privileged few could afford designer in color). She never talked about her mother, the Russian starlet who had her in secret after a failed abortion attempt and was strung up from a shower rod for successfully ridding herself of a second child. Instead, Kevin’s mother composed greeting cards as a means to cope — When Your Mother Wins an Oscar and Burns All Her Furs; When Your Mother Gets An Abortion From a Man Who Killed His Family, and so on. Kevin’s mother didn’t know the language her family spoke or the country from which they emigrated because she was raised by Newport Beach real estate developers. While most of her family had lived out the remainder of their lives in concentration camps, Kevin’s mother smoked joints in model homes.
After the third-period bell rang and the rumor mill about the dead mother had begun — the Greek chorus of I heard he… — Alice paused in front of Kevin’s locker. Before she…I mean, was your mom still doing the cards? Kevin shook his head and said, no, but I’m writing some. What Happens When Your Mother Dies and Your Father is An Asshole. What Happens When Your Mother Dies and Your Father Gets a Blowjob from Alice’s Mother, and so on.
His mom died, what do you expect? Luz filed her nails and told her son, Little Louie, to go play in the kitchen. This kid is killing me, murder in the first. LL, you’ve got a stove, matches, and a refrigerator — figure it out. What’s the deal with your mom anyway? My mother does soaps — the television shows that air during the day, the kind you watch in retirement homes. During sweeps, the writers killed off my mother’s character, again, and the studio ended her contract. Her options are pretty limited because she’s retirement home young, not Hollywood young — there are only so many times you can pay someone to rearrange your face. Luz laughed because it sounded like a plot from the old neighborhood only we get our black and blue purses down in Chinatown.
So now you’re taking has-been soap stars that give free blow jobs on island trips? I’m shocked, Kevin said. His eyes were the color of uncertain skies. If he concentrated long enough, he could go an hour without blinking. I thought chicks like her get motel rooms in Reseda, not private jets to Fiji. Kevin’s father stood in stony silence. Kevin took a picture of his father by the door. So I can remember what you look like, dad. Are you finished, Kevin? Yeah, I’m finished. Good. I left the Amex on the table. See you in a week. Put it on the card, doll. Alone in the house Kevin thought about all the calls he made to his father while he stood vigil over his mother in the hospital, all the calls his father didn’t take.
Alice was alone in the house, but the Internet kept her company. Luz was getting needy, always begging Alice to show her finery. Just one more look at the rings — I’ve never seen diamonds that big before. They’re Graff, Alice corrected; she’d grown tired of explaining the difference. Now she messaged Felicia, a woman who fed off her own regret. Felicia’s greatest tragedy was that she was old, older than Alice’s mom if you could believe it. During the day, Felicia was responsible for the online livelihood of a famous cookie. Alice thought that was kind of lame, but this was probably what her mother would have done had she not booked that pilot fifteen years ago and spent the rest of her life in front of the camera, getting murdered in make-believe towns. Alice cried a lot while Felicia airbrushed chocolate chips.
Late one night, Luz texted, flat leaver.
There was an incident with the jet, a malfunction, something having to do with wiring on the wings, and when Kevin’s father’s second assistant told him this Kevin said, so he’s not dead? Because that’s the only excuse I can think of for my hearing this from you instead of him. What do you want from me? Your father told me to tell you that he’s in Australia and he’ll be okay. Isn’t that enough? Who got the call from the first assistant? Jesus, Kevin, will you quit busting my balls? Tell me, first assistant. Alice got the call. Are you happy now?
For his sixteenth birthday, Kevin’s father gave him a Porsche, a bungalow at the Marmont, and the use of a doe-eyed Lithuanian named Nadia who would answer to Chloe to replace the girlfriend his father had fucked. The Marmont was seedy and filled with aging actors who did commercials in Japan. Kevin had Chloe for the night and they watched half of Halloween when Kevin said, can I get a rain check on this? Chloe smacked gum and said, anytime.
Kevin was the only one who knew about Big Michelle, twin dolls his grandmother, the starlet, owned. When Kevin’s mother was small she received a package in the mail containing the dolls and no return address. The postmark was from Minsk, and when she asked her parents about the odd gift, her adopted mother said, those came a long way from someone who loved you. Kevin made sure his mother was buried with the dolls.
Your father’s in Australia and he’s going to be fine, the second assistant repeated. I heard you the first time. The second assistant sighed and asked if Kevin needed anything. Cash? Party favors? A girl for the night? Kevin said he had the Amex. He had everything he needed.
The day before Alice swallowed all the pills she could find in the house, a bony girl knocked on her door. Alice drew the curtain and saw Kevin standing behind the girl. The girl said we’re here for the show. What show? Kevin said this is Chloe; let us in. Alice keyed in the alarm code, opened the door, and Kevin punched her all the way down the entryway until Alice saw black. When she woke Kevin was inside her and it hurt. Not as much as she had been lead to believe, but it felt like hundreds of sharp needles pin-pricking. Kevin held her face down on the bed and Alice could taste blood in her mouth. The ache of Kevin was constant.
Chloe sat in the corner smoking a cigarette, filming the scene with her phone. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. Make sure you get close-up of her face, Kevin yelled. I can’t have any confusion. While Kevin was inside Alice, wrecking things, Chloe shouted that this kind of play cost extra because I can get arrested for sending this shit to your father. When it was over, Kevin handed Chloe his father’s Amex and said in his father’s voice, put it on the card, doll.
Did you send the video to him? Yes, I sent it.
After they left, Alice wiped her face with one of her sweaters. The screen in front of her lit up with messages from Luz and a hundred other women in peril. Everyone was so loud with their wants: Alice, show me your mother’s rings. Alice, can I be with you when you do it? Alice, you’re so pretty. Alice, can you look up? I want to see your face. Alice, KILL YOSELF ALL REDEE! Alice, you got some nice titties. Alice, we’ve got a pool going and everyone picked a day of the week. Money’s on Friday because it would be just like you to kill yourself and ruin our weekend. Alice, are you the razors in the bathtub type?
No, she was a bottomless bottle of pills type, if you really wanted to know.
In five years time, Alice’s mother will win a Golden Globe for her performance as the mother of a suicidal child who was saved in the end by the studio’s ratings system (a razor dragged up the arm guaranteed NC-17 and that would fucking guillotine box office receipts, but we probably could show at Sundance) and maternal love.
Alice had a new card for Kevin, but she didn’t tell him what it was because why bother. In an empty house she cried out, I’m sorry for your loss.