January 19, 2013
This to say I made some mistakes.
Like breaking into this one guy’s car.
Like stealing the stereo out of that car.
I was young and I didn’t steal the stereo because I wanted the stereo.
I stole it, rather, because I wanted the guy.
This to say I just wanted some thing the guy owned.
This more to say that nothing else mattered in that moment except this thing the guy owned, this thing that, I now know, was not the guy.
Anyway there was nothing else in the car.
Had there been a jacket I would have stolen it.
Had anything else jarred loose—a mirror, an ashtray—I would have stolen that too.
But the stereo was the only thing I could snap out of its hole.
And so there I was, drunk and standing on the sidewalk at two a.m., the bar closing, the drunks stumbling out, holding a car stereo with both hands, a kind of person I didn’t even know I could be, and my friends said, Run.
This to say I made a mistake.
Not because I got caught, because I did not get caught.
Because no one ever once got caught.
Because this was Baltimore.
And if you know the place, you know what I mean.
If you know the place, you’re likely from there.
I mean you’re likely still there.
Which I no longer am.
Which doesn’t mean I figured it out.
It only means a window appeared and I went through the window before it disappeared.
Metaphorically I mean.
But it’s not time for anything deep.
We’re just talking about this mistake I made.
How I can’t make myself feel better.
Because I’m awake and thinking the thoughts I think at four a.m.
Me, some guy, and it’s always the same.
Me, some guy, and we’re lying around a bed like kids.
Then one thing, another, his hands on my face, his face near my face, and just before it all starts up, I’m yanking a stereo out from its hole.
I’m backing out ass first from the car.
My friends are screaming, Run.
To say I shouldn’t have stolen.
But I’d fallen hard for the guy whose stereo it was.
And when I fall hard, I fall like the proverbial ton of whatever, and by fall I mean I splinter everything around me.
Another might call it apocalyptic.
By another, I might mean the guy himself, the victim I mean, the guy headed away from me fast.
He might use the word apocalyptic when cracks form in the asphalt, when windows shatter, when women cover their daughters’ eyes.
When he floats upward to heaven.
I’m not being melodramatic.
You’ve never been there to see it.
And this time, like every time, the entire world had splintered.
And because he’d been all night in the bar talking to some girl, I was splintering within this splintered world.
It was very complex.
The strategy I mean.
Like if he stood there, I stood here.
If he looked at me, I looked away.
And on and on and on.
It was summer and it was a hundred degrees.
This is not an excuse but I’m just saying.
It was a hundred degrees and my friends said, Run, and we all ran up the street to my car, all of us too drunk to drive.
And six of us kids squeezed into the car, two up front, four in back, and somehow I ended up in the back, even though it was my car.
Somehow I ended up sitting on some guy’s lap, the stereo on top of mine.
And somehow one of the guys ended up in the driver’s seat, and he started the car and drove closer to the car I stole the stereo from, and we sat there.
And the radio, meaning the piece of shit radio in my car, was playing something from that summer, and the kids up front were singing, and there I was in the back of my car, some guy I didn’t like gripping my hips.
I didn’t know then what we were waiting for, sitting there outside the bar.
We were waiting for the guy whose stereo I stole to walk out.
We were waiting for the guy whose stereo I stole to get into his car and see that his stereo was gone.
But then what.
I mean what were we going to do about it.
That was the thing.
I had the stereo, but now what.
We’d hooked up, me and the guy whose stereo I stole, in the front of his car, the week before I stole the stereo and the week before that.
And the liquor, those nights, was doing its thing.
The stereo was doing its.
And the guy did this thing those nights where he tilted his head too far to one side when he moved in toward me.
There was something about this.
That brilliant spinning in one’s gut that no one knows how to describe.
That everything inside inching up and up, and this is why I wanted him.
And by wanted I mean I wanted to own him completely.
I wasn’t dumb.
I knew that stealing a stereo was not the way to own a guy.
I knew that the way to own a guy was to push something down, push something else out.
I know that the way to own a guy, still, years later, is this.
Like recently, there was this incident.
There was this guy whose car I scraped by mistake with my car.
It was raining that day, a downpour, and the guy whose car I scraped by mistake was big and standing on the sidewalk, holding his sagging bags of groceries.
He was waiting for me to move my car so that he could get into his.
I mean I’d parked so close, he couldn’t get into his car, and he was waiting in the downpour, burdened with his sagging bags, annoyed.
And when I backed up my car, one hand up, giving the obligatory wave, the obligatory thanks for waiting, I scraped his car with my side mirror, because of my shit parking job, and I heard it scrape, even through the sound of the radio, even through the rain and the windshield wipers’ squeak.
And before I shut off the car, and before the rain refilled the windshield, I saw the guy drop his bags of groceries to the wet ground and smack his forehead with both hands.
I knew I had a choice to make.
And I knew the right choice was to get out of the car.
And I knew I had another choice to make.
And I knew the right choice was to be a guy.
As the rain refilled the windshield, I knew I had to open the door.
And as I opened the door, I heard first the downpour, then heard the guy calling me certain names reserved for women, certain names I’d been called before and would be called again, certain names I’d, eventually, later, not too much later, call others.
And as I stepped out of the car I was suddenly some very small thing, by which I mean I was suddenly a woman to this guy, absorbing these names reserved for women, standing there in the downpour, reduced to something snail small and just as tightly coiled.
I wanted to be a guy.
I wanted to be a certain type of guy.
But instead I said, Stop yelling at me.
And he said, Stop being a fucking whore.
And what does one say to that.
I wanted to say a lot of things.
I wanted to say, Is that the best you can do.
Because it was raining and we were standing in it and it didn’t look like it would stop.
And his groceries might have slid, at any point, from the bottoms of their sagging bags.
The world could have come, is what I mean, at any point, to the standstill we’d been waiting for.
It would have been apocalyptic.
And this would have been his finale.
But the point is not this.
The point is I wanted to be a guy.
By which I mean I wanted to get up in his face.
I’m not talking about anything deep.
I’m talking about a generic performance of guy.
I’m talking about strapping on the proverbial pair.
But I never had to.
Because there was this second guy walking down the sidewalk.
And this is the point.
This second guy was walking down the sidewalk and the second guy had seen the whole thing, had seen me scrape this first guy’s car, had seen the first guy smack his head and yell at me, and the second guy walked up to the first guy and called the first guy an asshole.
And the second guy got up in the first guy’s face and told the first guy to get back into his car, said there wasn’t even a scratch, said, I’ll call the cops if you do not get the fuck back into your car right now.
And the second guy asked me if I was okay.
And the second guy called me certain names reserved for women, certain other names I’d been called before and would be called again.
It was then I became some sweet thing.
It was then I pushed something down, pushed something else out.
It was then I knew I owned the situation, meaning I knew I now owned both guys.
It’s not something I want to explain.
If you’ve got the parts you understand.
As for the rest of you.
Just know I knew it was good to be a woman.
Meaning it was very bad to be a woman.
And the first guy squeezed into his car and left.
And the rain slowed.
And the sun, at some point, came out.
There’s a chair across the room and were you here with me now, sitting in the chair across the room, I would get out of bed, I would walk across the room to the chair, I would sit at your feet, my head in your lap, my head demanding you pet it.
And you would pet it how I wanted it.
And bricks would loosen from the walls.
And sidewalks would fissure.
Animals would run to their dark holes filled with leaves.
I’m just saying.
Would I own you.
Do you think I would.
I’m just saying something.
I’m just saying I’m kind of a whore.
Which is not to say don’t like me.
Because I’m also kind of sweet.
Which is just to say.
The world should no longer be about wanting and wanting the way it was when I was younger and dumber, drawing in my bed, drawing some asshole’s name on my hand, and hearts.
But here we all are.
Meaning here I am wanting again.
The utter inconvenience of what I am.
The utter inconvenience of it all.
But I was just so fucking powerful that night.
I was in the backseat of my car that night.
I had a stolen stereo on my lap.
I was feeling like a superstar.
The kids up front were singing again.
And the bar door opened and the guy whose stereo I stole stumbled out.
Someone turned down the radio.
Someone was laughing, then everyone was laughing, even I was laughing my head off.
And the guy whose stereo I stole stumbled out with that girl on his arm, the girl stopping to untwist the strap on her shoe.
One of the kids up front said, Who’s she, and my legs were shaking, then I wasn’t laughing, and I almost screamed out the window, I’ve got your stereo, you dumb fuck.
I almost waved the stereo around, almost smashed it to the street right there in front of the bar, in front of the guy and the girl, and I would have screamed something, would have done all of this, but the guy driving my car sped off before I could scream.
Next someone turned up the radio and some song was on, and the six of us were riding up some burned-out Baltimore street.
There was no one on the street but us.
We were screaming out the words to this song.
Then another song came on and we knew that song too.
And it was only us, the six of us, singing on this crazy, burned-out Baltimore street.
I was just so fucking powerful in that moment.
Like how I’m just so fucking powerful in this moment.
Like how I kind of, admit it, own you.
I mean I kind of, admit it, have you.
I mean I think this is the climax.
This is it.
This is it now.
I rolled down the window and pushed my body, hands first, arms next, head next, upward through that open space and threw the stereo as hard as I could.
I heard it smash to bits against the side of some burned-out building.
I think you saw this coming.
I think you think, Big deal.
But someone could have gotten hurt.
I could have gotten caught.
It’s enough that I feel like shit.
Because I would have done almost anything that night.
Though I resisted hard at first.
Not stealing the stereo, which I didn’t resist.
I mean something about the guy whose lap I was on.
He pulled me back into the car like a savior.
He whispered to me to spend the night.
I said, No way.
And he said, Why not.
And I said, Because.
And he said, That’s not an answer.
And I said, It’s the only answer you’re getting.
But later that night, when it was me and him on some sidewalk somewhere, he came closer, nearly tilting his head, and I closed my eyes, pretended.
There are things that now I know.
Like that only the guy is the guy.
Like that objects are only objects.
Listen to me.
It had been a hundred degrees that day, and it was a hundred degrees that night, and after the guy and I hooked up, we were lying on top of his sheet, sticking to his sheet, a fan droning on the tilted dresser.
And I was already looking at the door, I was already thinking of moving like a ghost toward the door, I was already thinking of moving like a ghost away from that burned-out city, and I was praying for the apocalypse, I was praying for that final standstill, and when the standstill came, I moved.
It wasn’t the real standstill, of course, but a tease.
Still, it felt real.
Still, it lit the proverbial match.
It looked like a window and I went through it and landed here.
All this to say I’ve learned a few things.
All this to say I will not steal your things.
All this to say if I did steal your things, I know now the things will not have your name.
And they will not have your eyes.
And they will not smell like your sweat forever.
And they will not make me remember your hands on my face.
Or what song was playing when you tilted your head.
Or the lie you said that I believed.
They will only make me remember the sound the stereo made when it hit the burned-out building.
A sound I can’t describe.
A sound that was more like a color.
A color that was more like a pain.
A pain that was more like an answer.
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. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, the Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, Boulevard, and the Massachusetts Review, and she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize. She has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center, Yaddo, and NYU. She has a BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Story previously appeared in Pleiades
Adapted from Spectacle by Susan Steinberg. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Steinberg. With the permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press.