Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.

 

In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

Dear M—,

 

I’m writing to ask about your goldfish, Javaunte. Is the World’s Oldest Goldfish still alive?

*

I’m sorry for the names I called you a few years ago. I’m sorry I wished you were hit by a truck. I’m sorry for stealing your e-mail address and trying to log on to your Facebook account so I could pick through your private messages and the profiles of men I suspected you’d slept with. I didn’t know much about Facebook then, or my own desperation for answers. Though I wouldn’t admit it, not to you, I was embarrassed. It’s not like me to do something that brazen or unethical.

*

Well, sometimes it is.

*

When I found out I was sick and might not get better, I went through Jason’s things while he was at class. I went through his desk drawers, his closet, the boxes under his bed. I went through his file cabinet. That’s where I found a stash of notes from you, filed under “Misc.” One of them had crude pencil drawings on it–you, Jason, and a smiling goldfish. “Please feed Javaunte,” you’d written.

Like everything else I found that day–a birthday card that spoke of a “bittersweet summer,” an old driver’s license word-bubbled with “I need some crack!”, a few photographs–I shredded the note to pulp.

*

We were moving to Alabama after graduate school. That’s why I started stalking you. Facebook, MySpace, Google searches with twenty different keywords: your name, law school, University of Alabama. That’s where you had just earned your Juris Doctorate, and where I would be teaching English in the fall. That’s where I expected to see you in my new coffee shop, my new bookstore, except they wouldn’t be mine because they would already be yours, like Jason was. I needed to know what you looked like so I could recognize you. What you looked like now, I mean.

*

In the pictures on Jason’s wall–the collages of college friends and concert tickets and newspaper clippings with his byline–you sometimes had blond hair, sometimes brown. In black-and-white, your eyes looked blue, but when I wrote once that they were blue, Jason corrected me. “Brown,” he said. “One of the irises leaks a little, like a dog’s.” He said that to make me feel better–here, a flaw–but I thought it was cute. I love dogs. I love flaws. I love Jason’s crooked bicuspid, the one he threatens to straighten someday, the one that cuts my lip when he isn’t careful.

*

You, holding a glass of white wine, a lit Christmas tree behind you. You, camping. You, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl’s outfit on Halloween. You, standing on a bridge with sunglasses on. You, smoking a Camel Light. You, sitting on a dock, looking out at the water, Jason sneaking up behind you to get the shot.

*

You were right about one thing: I can’t prove it was you. I know only that you had the disease first, the year before I did, that you lied about it, that you gave Jason a cure that doesn’t exist. What were those pills?

I can’t prove it was you, but I had to believe it was you. How else would Jason not take your calls in the middle of the night, when his cell phone screen read, “Baby calling,” and not see you on trips home when I stayed behind, and not one day introduce us and make us play nice over drinks? How else would those pictures come down so new ones could go up? How else would he finally, once and for all, let you go?

*

It was probably you. We both know this.

*

I never saw you in Alabama to tell you how I was feeling. In your body, the disease turned dormant and went away. In my body, it evolved.

When my sense of humor is most intact, I imagine a scenario. I imagine we are girlfriends that talk about their trips to the gynecologist. I imagine that, in Tuscaloosa, we get together over beers at Egan’s and grimace over the wrinkled doctor who treats us both in that complex behind the university. I imagine you know all about the protesters in the parking lot, the ones who carry misspelled signs (“You’re fetis loves you”), who call and make fake appointments. I imagine you, too, have had to arrive two hours early for a check-up because those protesters think you’re coming for an abortion.

I imagine it starts to get dark outside, almost as dark as in Egan’s. I buy us another round and ask if I can tell you something personal, something bad. You say yes. You say of course.

I tell you that the nitrogen oxide made me feel like I was rolling off the metal examination table. That the nurse held me fast and said, “Hush, baby, it’s almost over,” and I told her “baby” was your name and “darlin'” was mine. That Jason didn’t go in with me because I told him not to. That I wanted him to come in anyway. That I left part of my cervix in that room, the part covered in dividing cells, the part it took two people to make.

Like other women who have left pieces of themselves in that building, I, too, could call that part “baby.”

*

Even though your profile is mostly private now, I remember your pictures on Facebook. I made fun of you for writing “luv” in reference to your dog. I called you a bottle blond.

Here are some things I wouldn’t have said then: I think you’re pretty. I think you love your sister. I think your best friend is more beautiful than either of you, but also crueler. I think she has a controlling way about her, and I think you have done things to impress her that aren’t really you. I think you take a lot of self-portraits, like me. I think we are both insecure. I think that’s why I once cheated on a boyfriend I still miss sometimes, and why you cheated on Jason.

*

Jason and I are married, eight months now. At first, I made the wedding pictures public. You weren’t the only reason. But I hoped you would see them. Please forgive me. I’ve made them private again.

*

My friend laughs every time I tell the Javaunte story.

Jason was recalling Alabama, something he does more often now that we live in upstate New York. He couldn’t remember the name of someone in his hometown, the name of a wino who nearly died in the alley beside the Marion jail. “Oh, we’ll just call him Javaunte,” he said.

Immediately, I saw the bowl sitting on a coffee table covered with ashes and band stickers. Plastic grass waving in water that needed to be changed. A funny caption. “Javaunte: World’s Oldest Goldfish.”

I smacked Jason on the arm. “You pulled that out of M—‘s fishtank!” I said. He looked stunned for a moment, and then he remembered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I completely forgot about that.”

I stood up to get another beer from the fridge. “I know everything,” I called, sing-song, from the kitchen. “You have no idea what I know.”

*

You know what’s weird? I had a really old goldfish, too.

I got Norman when I was eight. My mother took me to the Tioga County fair and let me go off with some friends to the rides and games. I had only one rule. I was not to play the goldfish game. No more goldfish, she said.

I didn’t think I would win. I had no aim, wasn’t the least bit athletic. It was just luck that damn ping-pong ball landed in Norman’s slot. The game attendant put him in a sandwich bag filled with water and tied it off. My mother was livid, but she mumbled something about fair goldfish always dying the next day anyway.

It started to rain on our way to the car, and my clumsiness caught up with me. As I slid into the backseat of our Chevette, the sandwich bag slipped from my hand. The knot came undone, and all the water spilled out, on the floor, in my lap. It had a fishy smell. Norman lay flipping around on the fabric seat.

I screamed, horrified. My mother didn’t want a fish, but she didn’t want one to die either, so we got out of the car and began scraping rainwater off the other vehicles, refilling the sandwich bag with about an inch–all we could get from the hot July shower.

We put Norman back in the bag and drove home. He looked lifeless, barely fluttering at the bottom. My mother told me to expect the worst.

But Norman made it home, and through the next day, and the next. He lived until I was twenty-two.

*

Besides fortified goldfish, I wonder what else we have in common, M—. I’m sure you’ve wondered this, too. I’m sure you’ve thought there’s got be something we share besides cells and boyfriends, something fundamental, something a man like Jason would love in both of us.

Maybe enough time has passed for me to send you a friend request. Maybe we should move our stalking out in the open. Look at the pictures, scrutinize the hair, the eyes, the easy or uneasy smiles at the camera Jason is or isn’t holding. Maybe, if we look long enough–if we watch one another change jobs, cities, friends, body weights and hair colors and outfits–we’ll find the familiarity we were once sure didn’t exist in the other.

Even if it’s just goldfish we’re determined to keep alive. That’s something. I hope Javaunte is doing well.

 

Best,

Amy

 

 

There are a couple of scenes in A Common Pornography where you have sexual encounters with men. Were these moments erotic to you at the time?

You use the word “encounters” like they were aliens. But those particular moments were not really erotic. I’ve had other experiences with guys that were much hotter.


So, are you bisexual?

As Kurt Cobain said, “Everyone is gay.” But I would say that I mostly identify as a queer straight.


When you were driving around naked at the beginning of the book, something that happened just a couple of years ago, were you aroused?

No, but I’ve driven around like that too.


If you were to drive around naked now, what song would you crank on the car stereo?

Something perverse like Beethoven.


Do you have any bumper stickers on your car?

I have an Obama/Biden sticker that was printed by our union at Powell’s (the ILWU—longshoreman, bitches!) and a big Cardinals emblem because they’re my favorite football team.


Do you read the reviews of your books?

I do, and they’re good for the most part. I’ve gotten a few bad reviews too though. They do hurt my feelings sometimes. I could easily go to Twitter or Facebook or wherever and talk about how much of a bitch so and so from the Boston News or Minnesota Herald is, but I restrain myself. I don’t want to cause negative drama or to look like a baby. We’re all professionals here, right?


What’s the worst thing that someone has said about A Common Pornography?

One blogger said it was “one of the three worst books of the year.” A pretty funny thing to say actually—I mean to come up with the number three! Hahaha. He has the rest of the year to find two worse books than mine. But really, it’s no big deal. I know that some people are just not the right person or reader for the book. I want everyone to like it, but that’s not going to happen. Still, if you don’t like the book, then something is wrong with you.


You have been part of the independent publishing scene for about twenty years, what are some of the other publishers you admire?

That’s kind of a stock question, isn’t it?


Let me rephrase it. Which small publishers would you marry, fuck, and kill?

I would marry Akashic because they’re adventurous and treat their people well. I would fuck Cleis because they put out a lot of dirty books and they’re probably good in bed. And I’d kill Publishing Genius Press because they’re from Baltimore and I heard it’s easy to get away with murder there. Plus I think Adam Robinson owes me ten bucks.


Has anyone from your past contacted you about your book?

A couple of people. It’s interesting to hear the reaction from old girlfriends especially. Erin, who was my first girlfriend that I lived with said, “I don’t remember doing some of those awful things, but they sound true.” Another girl that I mention very briefly in the book sent me a message and said she was glad that I didn’t use her real name—but she meant it in a nice way I think. And I hate to even talk about this but my first high school girlfriend tracked me down and sent me a typo-riddled Facebook message. She’s one of the few people I really have no interest in talking to. It made me a little sick to see her note. I’m a really positive and friendly person and I don’t believe in hating people, but I have to say that I kind of hate her still.


After working on a memoir, is it hard to get back into fiction?

I’ve found it extremely hard. I tried to start a novel last year, a few months before ACP came out, and I hit a roadblock after about 20 pages. I still like the idea of it though, so I hope to get back into that. In the meantime, I have written a couple of other nonfiction pieces. One of them was about dirty talk and then something about music memories. l I also have a pretty funny essay about my vasectomy operation but I haven’t sold it to anyone yet.


Is it true that you proposed to your girlfriend at the end of your Powell’s reading back in February?

A: Why, yes, that is true. And no, we did not recreate the moment when I read in other cities, although some people wanted us to. You can actually see an across the room view of the proposal on Youtube. We’re hoping to get hitched before the end of the year.



The first thing I did after you moved out was rearrange the furniture.

Before your moving truck even made it down the hill to the interstate I was back upstairs, calculating the new equation of chair/couch/bed/desk that redefined “our” home as “my” home. It was easy; the strength I wasted trying to keep us together was more than adequate to the task. With all of your junk gone there was at last room to move, room to breathe. You took away so much but at least you left me with that.

Next I cleaned. Every spill, every stain, every unwashed surface you spent months ignoring I attacked. Your laziness towards housework had accreted in buildup behind the toilet, under the microwave and in all the little crumbs of half-eaten cat food scattered around the edges of the carpet. I swept and mopped and scrubbed, down on hands and knees with a toothbrush where need be. I mauled the carpet with the vacuum, running it back and forth, over and over, siphoning up piles of fur left behind by two cats I hope never to see again and the dog I’d give anything to have back.

I found the ashtray stuffed full of cigarette butts you left for me out on the balcony. Thank you for that.

When that was done I stripped the bed like a carcass, collecting the worn sheet set you’d left behind and hauling it down to the dumpster. A waste, yes, but it was too worn out to be donated to Goodwill. I warned you about that in the store, tried to tell you that the pets’ claws would hook on all those embroidered flowers and tear the comforter to shreds. “But it’s pretty,” you insisted, as if this were the principal criteria for the purchase of any household item, and I chose not to carry the fight further. When the animals proved me right you hated me for it, even while we lay as pages between those covers.

I organized the DVDs and the books and cupboards, discovering in the process that my copy of Shaun of the Dead was missing. My posters and decorations were repositioned and re-hung, liberated from the tyranny of a single bedroom wall. I did this all while playing CDs by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on my stereo system, thrilled I could once again listen to them without hearing your endless complaints of “Ugh! Chick music!”  

Every photograph of you and I, every image that suggested we had been together in any sense at all, I collected into a shoebox I shoved into the back of the closet, where it remains. I could have burned or shredded them, tossed them in the dumpster along with your sheets, but like it or not you are a part of my past, and I cannot burn you out of my memory. But I saw no need to leave reminders of that lying about.

When all this was done, when the apartment finally looked like a place where I lived rather than where I merely existed, I was still buzzing, blurry around the edges with unspent energy. It was early dusk, the sun still up in the air, and I doubted you’d even made it to the Arizona border. I went for a run, making sure to listen to my iPod so I wouldn’t have explain to the neighbors out walking their dogs why mine wasn’t jogging with me this time. On the way home I bought dinner from that Hawaiian barbeque place you hated, even though you only ever tried one dish.

After dinner I took a long shower, since there was no one around insisting she had to take a bath. I scrubbed myself the way I scrubbed the floor, and made a note to throw out all of those various little bottles of bath oils and emollients you left behind. When finished I chose to stay naked, faint steam rising off my skin in the apartment’s cool January air. I walked around the living room aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of my unclothed body. The lights were on and the blinds half-open, and I could hear you in my head, yelling at me about how someone would see, how embarrassing it would be.

“Fuck it,” I said to you-in-my-head, “anyone spending their time staring in through my windows gets exactly what they deserve.” And that was the last word on the matter.

I watched my DVD of Blade Runner, the film you always said you “don’t get,” because it is how I’ve christened every solo apartment I’ve ever had, and because it is my favorite, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.

When I finally felt tired I stretched out on the bed, now fitted with my old flannel sheets from college, and marveled at how much space there was, and how relaxed I felt in it. I avoided looking at the empty spot at the foot where the dog should have been curled up in a little fuzzball.

I thought about how much time I would have to write, without you around to constantly interrupt.

I decided to take up learning the guitar again, and to exercise more.

I wondered about the next person I would date, and the next person I would sleep with, and which would come first. 

The last thing I did after you moved out was send an email to my friends, everyone I should have called individually but just didn’t have the patience to, to bring them up to speed on the day’s events. Instead of paragraphs I wrote only two words:

“It’s done.”