The following are TWO sample chapters from my book Almost Wrong, available now. (I thought I’d give you one chapter from each of the book’s two perspectives.) Read and enjoy!
CHAPTER 1: HUNTER
I take a long moment to assess myself in the mirror, wondering if it’s true what life’s losers say: that being successful is basically the same thing as selling out. I don’t think so, but of course I wouldn’t — being a huge sellout and all, judging by my bank account.
Most of the time, I ignore ideas like that. But today’s my birthday, and birthdays are times for reassessment. And while it’s not hard to shake the voices of most haters from my brain, today one hating voice remains.
I don’t care what most people think about me—my lifestyle, my company, my money, or my status as a possible sellout—but I do care what that she thinks. Or I used to, anyway. A lifetime ago.
I don’t turn to face Duncan right away. I’m preoccupied with the mirror, with straightening the brushed silver links in the French cuffs of my Charvet shirt. I’m not entirely onboard with the way Martin cut the sleeves of my suit coat to hang above them. They’re a quarter-inch too long and don’t show enough white when my arms hang at my sides — maybe half an inch.
It occurs to me that even having an idea how long my sleeves should hang might, to certain people, strengthen that whole “sellout” idea. I used to wear ratty tees instead of bespoke suits. I used to fight, and get suspended from high school. I’ve given my dad the finger more times than I can count, which hardly mattered because Dad was drunk most of those times. I defended a kid with my fists once, when bullies were trying to take his lunch money. But during my worst years I robbed plenty of other kids, so at best things evened out. Maybe that’s why I give so much to charity: trying to keep my soul from the devil.
That’s what Angela’s mother would have said.
Duncan comes up behind me. I see him in the mirror rather than meeting his eyes. There’s a piece of glass between us, giving us one degree of distance. Maybe it’s a metaphor for our friendship as it extends beyond business.
Several inches of crushed ice lay in the polished black sink below me. Other places I visit use polished rocks instead. I’m fascinated by that. Putting shit in sinks, in fancy hotels and restaurants, makes the experience highbrow; it’s the opposite of the way things used to be, when our sink on Lewis Street was always piled high with dirty dishes, both before Dad got remarried and after.
“I heard you, Duncan.”
“Samantha is looking for you.”
“Tell her to meet me in the third stall from the left. I want her on her knees and ready.”
Duncan rolls his eyes. He doesn’t realize I’m half-serious. Samantha is five-eleven in heels, thin and strong, blonde, and spends half an hour every morning brushing her hair before touching it with a hairdryer or hot oil or whatever the hell she uses to shine it. She pretends to primp because she feels she deserves to look her best.
But really, she doesn’t. She’s a horrible person. That’s why Duncan fixed us up. She’s not a good woman so much as one who’s more than willing, at a moment’s notice, to make sure I’m satisfied. I pay her bills; she does her job. She’s no stranger to time on her knees.
“She wants to make a toast,” Duncan says.
“To Dreadnought Records?”
“Because it’s your birthday, Hunter.”
This time, I roll my eyes. Since I’m still looking in the mirror, I can’t help but be a little insulted by my reflection’s attitude. Stupid callous billionaire, thinking he’s too good for everyone else. He’s forgotten his roots. No matter how much he pretends to keep his connection to the old neighborhood, everyone knows he hasn’t seen it in person for years, unless it was in a documentary about the underprivileged.
“I think she’s toasting Dreadnought,” I tell Duncan.
Duncan grabs my shoulders and turns me around. He’s in a suit much like mine, but I can’t help but feel he wears it better. I can’t place his aftershave. Duncan’s black skin is so smooth around his mustache and little beard that I want to touch it.
“You’ve been in here for half an hour. Like a girl.” A beat, then: “You’re hiding.”
“How do you hide in a bathroom?”
Duncan turns to the restroom attendant. I wonder if it speaks ill of me — if it adds credence to the idea that I’ve forgotten my roots — that I’m barely aware of the attendant’s presence. He’s a small man, his skin color somewhere between my ivory and Duncan’s ebony. It’s like someone averaged us, made us shorter, shoved us into a monkey suit, and gave us an Hispanic accent. He’s sitting on a stool, doing nothing. Literally nothing, earning a few cents above minimum wage to feed his family, just waiting for someone to come in so he can hand them a towel.
Duncan speaks to him. “Manuel.”
“Si, Mr. Hall?”
“How long has Mr. Altman been primping in the mirror?”
“I do not know, Mr. Hall.”
“Has he been doing that thing where he talks to himself?”
“I do not think so, Mr. Hall.”
Duncan turns to me. “Walter was asking for you, too.”
“I don’t want to talk to Walter on my birthday.”
“Do you want to talk to him at the Dreadnought celebratory cocktail hour? Because that’s what we’re calling this event. Nobody even knows it’s your birthday.”
“I’ll go out if Samantha can announce my birthday in her toast,” I say, “then I can leverage that into an excuse. I’m not talking to Walter.”
Duncan sighs, then fishes a ten from his pocket and stuffs it into a small box beside the Manuel’s station. Manuel has a little Virgin Mary there, right on the goddamned corner of the sink, as if this is a shrine. The box has an image of the Virgin on its two visible sides. Too much Mary for a hotel bathroom. Nobody wants Her on the sink while you take a leak or get a blow job in the stall from your rich, pretty, slutty girlfriend. Though, for the right tip, I figure both Mary and Manuel will turn their heads.
“Let’s go, Hunter. If I don’t bring you out this time, Samantha will have my head.”
“Have, give,” I say. “She can do both.”
“Straighten your cuffs.” Duncan is speaking to me, but Manuel sits upright and composes himself.
“Si, Mr. Hall,” he says.
CHAPTER 2: ANGELA
I really hate getting the mail.
Today, there’s a water bill. That’s not too bad. It’s just forty bucks, easily payable with my tips. I don’t even have to break the seal on my direct deposit paycheck. I’ll write a check, of course, but I like thinking of the money as coming from my tips instead. The mental gameplay helps. Like how, when I worked at the deli, I used to pay for Mom’s diabetes medication with tips. Those pills were on that Walmart cheapo plan anyway, so it’s not like it was a big accomplishment, but every bit helps. Tips were scant at the deli, but at least the games made it feel like I wasn’t footing my mother’s medical expenses. God knows I foot enough of her others.
Sometimes, the mail is worse. Sometimes, depending on the time of month, I cringe when it comes.
Rent is simple, but painful. I expect and plan for that one. Mom used to kick in for rent, but her current philosophy seems to be that her disability requires saving over contribution. I used to live with Mom; now she lives with me. Same house. The only change since graduation is that I started paying the full rent while Mom kept the master bedroom.
The rent stub is fine. Other things brought by mail tend to hurt. The electric bill fluctuates, especially in winter. California doesn’t make you immune to cool nights, and Mom uses this plug-in heater that gobbles the juice. When it’s especially cool, which is rare, we’ll turn on the furnace. But the furnace needs servicing I can’t afford, so it always scares me a little. And that always makes our electrical bill (which I pay; Mom’s on disability and hence unable to do much more than watch TV and eat with my stepfather) a terrible little surprise. Sometimes, I open it and sigh; other times, I have a panic attack. But it never passes without an emotional reaction.
There’s cable and Internet. I’d be willing to skip both, but Mom’s insistent.
There’s our cell phone plan. That one feels really frivolous to me, seeing as I’m the earner and budget maker. With all the phones added together, it’s half what we spend on food — but Mom can’t live without her cell, and the family plan makes adding me sensible.
Besides, it’s good to have a phone. I never know when Mom might yell a religiously charged judgment at someone in a public place and I’ll have to look it up before knowing how to respond. A cry of “Jezebel” has become easy (she’s called me that often enough), but something like “David and Jonathan” is harder. After she said that one, I had to look up “penalties for hate crimes.”
There’s Mom’s medical loan. The hospital gave us a payment plan for her knee surgery. Getting them to agree was easy enough: when her bill arrived, we didn’t pay it. They offered us a payment plan as an alternative to debt collectors. Easy.
When things are on an even keel, though, my careful budget work keeps us somewhere right around break-even. Problem is, nothing stays on an even keel. Sometimes, the car breaks down, like last month. Sometimes, an appliance will go on the fritz. Sometimes, Mom will order too many On-Demand movies and turn the cable bill into a time bomb.
I’m flipping through bills, delaying my trip back up the porch steps, when I see a red envelope, larger than the others.
Even before opening it, I know what it is.
I open it anyway. It’s a generic birthday card with several points of amusement. First, it’s clearly for a Jewish person, judging by the subtle Star of David on the front. That in itself means I’ll need to burn the thing before Mom sees it, lest she take mortal offense to her Catholic beliefs. Second, it says nothing specific to indicate the sender knows me. Third, my birthday was a full week ago. And fourth — most insultingly — the signature inside is clearly a farce and a forgery.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANGELA. Hunter.
But that’s a fucking joke. I recognize the handwriting. I should, seeing as I’ve been getting birthday and Christmas cards bearing this handwriting for years. Hunter’s personal assistant.
Hunter doesn’t even have a secretary. Hunter has a personal assistant. The kind of person you hire to pick up your laundry, buy your vitamins, and send birthday cards to your stepsister.
I stare at the card, unable to believe that this year (as every year) he can’t be bothered to sign the card himself. He probably doesn’t even know it’s sent. I’m sure it’s a recurring task in his assistant’s to-do list, going out faithfully without bothering the boss.
I look at the object in my other hand: a gift card for Olive Garden. One hundred bucks. Hunter’s standard present — which, again, he probably only knows as a minor debit from his titanic balance.
My jaw works, wanting to grind my teeth. I know how my eyes must look: they’ll be hard, in that glare people say is so bitchy and intimidating.
I stare at the gift card, hating it. Hating the way he sends this offering in such an offhand, forgettable manner each year, inside a card he never sees, signs, or considers. I hate the way it’s for Olive Garden, which I happen to love, though I know Hunter feels way too good for it. Most of all, I hate the way my pride wants to throw it in the trash … but I pocket it instead.
Money is money. Food is food.
I stalk inside, wondering if it’s worth sending a thank-you note. Twin powers war inside me. I was raised to be polite and thank people for gifts they’ve given. But I was also raised with pride — by my mom back when she had some, and even a bit by Hunter’s father, Bill, whom I don’t like any more than his son, but ended up stuck with nonetheless. I hate that it’s harder to loathe Bill than Mom, seeing as he at least contributes to the household a little. And sure, he drinks his paycheck before it hits the bottom line, but he always reminds me that I should be grateful, so I pretend to be, like a good little girl.
I used to have pride. I learned from two proud people whose pride had twisted and soured, turning them into what I’m saddled with today. Supporting proud people is even worse than supporting dishrags. Shameless people will at least get out of your way, but prideful folks feign self-sufficiency, which makes dragging their carcasses out of the gutter to prop them up that much harder.
I’ll send Hunter’s assistant his fucking thank you. Hunter probably won’t see it.
But I won’t send him a birthday card.
Our birthdays were close enough that after our parents married, before I tried to leave the first time and Hunter vanished, we used to have parties together. One set of decorations, one cake, two friends each. A cost-saving convenience, disguised as family unity.
Today is his birthday. He’ll be thirty, and next year it’ll be my turn to do the same.
Happy birthday, asshole.