When Meredith Broussard celebrated her 26th birthday and realized that she’d survived exactly 26 failed romantic entanglements, she reckoned it was high time to dissect this topic that had filled her life with so much . . . angst. With the help of 26 of today’s hottest young female writers, Broussard gets to the heart of the matter. The Dictionary of Failed Relationships is a hip collection of stories, all shedding light on the wide range of emotions (from anger to melancholy to rage supreme) associated with love gone wrong.
Ambivalence by Heidi Julavits • Berniced by Eliza Minot • Call-Hell by Amy Sohn • Dagenham by Anna Maxted • Etiquette by Thisbe Nissen • FAQ by Elizabeth Benedict • Green by Susan Minot • Honeymoon by Mary-Beth Hughes • Islands by Jennifer Macaire • Justice by Kathy Lette • Kid by Martha Southgate • LDR by Colleen Curran • Muay Thai by Rachel Resnick • Nightmare by Pam Houston • Orgasm by Darcey Steinke • Pain by Leslie Pietrzyk • Queer by Pagan Kennedy • Regret by Jennifer Weiner • Savage by Maggie Estep • Threesome by Dana Johnson • Underdog by Judy Budnitz • Vitriol by Shelley Jackson • Worship by Michele Serros • X by Suzanne Finnamore • Yuppie by Lucinda Rosenfeld • Zero by Erika Krouse
With tales both deliciously sassy and heartbreakingly true, The Dictionary of Failed Relationships will leave you laughing, crying, or asking that one key important question: Ain’t love a bitch?
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By Heidi Julavits
ambivalence 'bi-ve-len(t)s noun [International Scientific Vocabulary] (1918) 1: simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. Such feelings may be constant in a relationship. 2a: continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite). b: uncertainty as to which approach to follow, especially in the days preceding a breakup.
Let me put it plainly: It was summer. We drove down to Mexico.
This was not a vacation, because we were already on vacation. Vacation from a vacation from a vacation brings us full circle. "Business," Tim said to the customs official. It was July, and Texas wasn't hot enough for us, it wasn't screaming bloody cicada murder enough for us, so we had to drive down to Mexico in a white rental car and look for campsites with the word superstition in the name.
What's the word for superstition in Spanish? I asked. I sought Tim's advice when it came to certain languages. He was brought up by a grammarian mother, a feisty little Shreveport looker who raised her son to fear cliches more than venereal disease, who didn't give a hoot if he failed to make his bed for forty years, as long as he said give it to Bob and me.
Better you don't know, Tim said, fending off the little Mexican boys at the Nuevo Laredo crossing. They wanted money from the Americans in the white rental car. We were good-looking Americans, too, gleaming with a certain kind of ironic roadtrip sexy. Secondhand guayaberas factored in, and fake leather boots, and the paper-stink of truckstop potatoes extruding from our pores. Forget that I was a debutante, once, that I said crudite, once, at a party. Forget that Tim was pursuing a degree in comparative literature (he was a Lacanian with a concentration in Chilean protest poetry), forget that he grew a goatee to hide his thin upper lip, that he kept an antique prophylactic in the lizard wallet bequeathed to him by a dead man, his grandfather, that he was prone to saying things with a put-on Louisiana drawl like you're so dang fetching when you're scared. He believed there was no more novelty in the world, so the knowing cliche was the only antidote to banality.
This is the great thing about America. You can slum smartly in a fool instant.
But these little begging boys, they were not without a certain degree of original menace, in my opinion. They had a little mantra. Tim translated.
They claim we're having a party in our bank account, he said.
Did you tell them it's BYOB? I asked.
He didn't laugh. He blew past the little boys after giving them our Einstein air freshener. I saw one boy put it in his mouth as we cruised toward the Whatever Mountains, listening to Border Oldies.
This is bad, I said. The Border Oldies station played mostly seventies tunes that made me doomy.
What is bad? he asked. He liked to ask little things like they were big things, philosophical things, not like what is bad, but what is bad?
What is bad is the following, I said: That little boy will suck on the Einstein air freshener, because he thinks he'll ingest some glorious piece of America. His sister will find it clenched in his rictused hand tomorrow morning, and the authorities will trace the serial number back to your mother, who sent you the air freshener on your birthday as a joke-not-joke, because everyone knows your mother thinks you're a genius. Subsequent tests will determine that the air freshener--bought from your derelict brother's tchotchke headshop in Atlanta--was soaked in a tremendous amount of PCP. The Feds will prosecute your mother for drug dealing and for overestimating the very average intelligence of both her sons. Your SAT scores will be printed in all the national papers, corroborated by quotes from your elementary school teachers testifying to your mediocre preteen performance. You will be thrown out of your graduate program and forced to sell your grandfather's antique prophylactic on eBay to pay your student loans, which will come due immediately.
The wallet belonged to my grandfather, not the rubber. But that was a good one, he said.
Don't you ever worry you tell me too much about yourself?
Meaning, don't these morbid fantasies conceal an actual desire?
What is actual desire? I asked.
If you hate my mother, just say so.
I don't hate your mother. I am humored by your mother, which is a generous way to be exhausted by a person.
It just seems a little passive, he said. Thinking about doing things versus simply doing them.
He cranked up the Border Oldies until the bass line fuzzed. So, he said, changing the subject, what do all these songs have in common?
Death by vomit? I guessed.
They're all in minor keys. The seventies was a minor-key decade. That's why we're such an anxious generation. We were children raised on popular menace.
So that's why, I said, licking the knuckles of his driving hand.
We never found the Superstition campsite. We settled for a roachy hotel in a big, noisy city. How come I've never heard of this city? I asked. It's so terribly big and noisy. We walked around the monolith and stared up at the Whatever Mountains. With confidence, he told me the word for "whatever" in Spanish was zapata.
I wanted to have sex all night to keep my mind off the roaches, but he wasn't up to it. It's all that Chilean protest poetry, I said, fingering his jellied crotch. The revolution is a flaccid cause. Viva la Deflation!
I drove twelve hours, he said, yawning.
But this is a road trip, I said. Carnality is part of the knowing cliche. We can have facile sex and I'll yell, give it to Bob and me.
He wanted to go to sleep.
But the floor is seething with roaches, I said. We'll wake up and they'll be in every orifice, laying eggs or just plain hanging out.
You're acting faux-scared and I'm fucking tired.
I was raised during the minor-key decade, I said. Blame it on Jethro Tull.
If you feel like I have a limited capacity for intimacy, just say so, he said.
Zapata, I said, over and over, into his sleepy ear. Worst-case scenarios were just another cliched joke to him. There was no turning him on to the attendant promise of doom, there was no inspiring him, in short, to see the world the way I did: full of an inventively crippling kind of illumination.
The next morning we went to a museum. This was neither of our ideas, but we didn't know each other well enough to admit we hated museums. We were both scared of appearing artless.
There were photographs of motion in this museum. A man jumping over a wheelbarrow. A horse jumping over a dog.
I need a beer, Tim said.
We ordered beer and churros in the garden behind the brick museum. What do you think this place used to be? he asked, dipping his churro into his beer. A factory?
It was a motion factory, I said. This is where quickness was isolated. When quickness was first developed, no one thought it would catch on. The brains behind the operation, Senor Somebody, became a miserable pauper. His wife left him post-haste, using his own invention. His children changed their surnames to Nafta, which is Spanish slang for "inertia."
That's a sad story, Tim said, burping. Wanna fuck?
We fucked and then we went to the mountains. But Tim being Tim, he wasn't much of one for roads.
This isn't such a good idea, I said. We will be stranded and we'll hear nothing but wind. We'll be stalked by wolverines, or worse, I'll learn that you're a coward when it comes to confronting the more feral animals.
Tim didn't hear me. Besides, it's a rental, he said. The dirt roads had canyons in them. Our little white car was called a Malabar, but Tim renamed it the Malcontent because it had no-wheel drive and three pissy cylinders. The little tires dropped into the canyons. The axles made shivery, snapping noises. We were stuck.
I took the wheel while Tim rocked against the Malcontent's dusty white bottom, his aviator sunglasses slipping down over his goatee.
Tim dislodged us and the road improved. We were making good time now, two or three kilometers an hour. We crept through a tiny town. Chickens butt-waggled away from us, chagrined. A woman stood on her porch in a dress and apron, circa 1863. Her husband leaned on a hoe, dumbfounded. They're so Mexican Gothic, I said. Tim got mad. He got mad when people made references to things they'd only encountered through crappy third-hand culture. Like Proust's fucking madeleine, he'd gripe. People are always talking about Proust's madeleine, but how many of them have actually read Proust? A reference to a reference to a reference to a reference. So, he said, who painted American Gothic, do you even know?
It wasn't Samuel D. Clemens, I said. It wasn't Alice B. Toklas.
Samuel P. Clemens, he said. He flipped down his sunglasses and decided to forgive me, because the Mexican Goths were watching us fight and he didn't want to give good-looking Americans a bad name. Imagine waking up and seeing us, said Tim. Imagine seeing two blond people in a white car in the middle of the mountains. He honked and waved at the Goths. We're a dream, he said, patting my jeans. We're a first-world hallucination brought to you by Malcontent.
Soon it was time for lunch.
We had cheese, we had tomatoes, we had bread, we had meat. I insisted that it was very, very taboo to make a sandwich. We sat on the dusty hood with our parts spread out on plastic bags. It was acceptable, I said, to put two kinds of food in your mouth at once, but never three. Two foods was a combination, three was a sandwich.
Huh, said Tim, piling up his bread.
So what's the difference between a pederast and a pedophile? I asked. I was eating, at that moment, tomato and cheese.
I think I love you, he said.
You're just saying that because you don't know the answer. You'll say anything to keep appearing smart. Even in the wilderness.
He put a piece of bread and meat in his mouth. We're sitting on the hood of Malcontent in the Whatever Mountains and I said I think I love you, said Tim. And don't say zapata or I'll leave you here without a peso.
That would be very rude, I said. He kissed me and we were four foods now, we were in serious violation of something. This will come back to haunt us, I said. At the Superstition campground, we will be haunted by this.
But back to your original question, Tim said, stroking his goatee for effect. One only thinks about doing, while the other does.
All in all, we spent four days in Mexico. We rode donkeys at one point, up and down gravel slides. Neither of us had health insurance. We slept in somebody's front yard and ate some very inspiring pork tacos. I'm making it sound like our business trip was all such fun, but really there was so much loneliness at work. There was so much anxiety at work, all those seventies songs in my system, driving me to ruinous thoughts. I told Tim: I am anxious in the mountains, I am anxious out of the sight of humanity. I longed for a monolith, a room seething with roaches. I didn't want to blame him, because we were in love apparently, so I blamed it on the mountains. I cursed them out, Zapata, Zapata, Zapata. Yet, somewhere in these mountains, I took the best photograph of my adult life. It was a picture of Tim's arm. We found an abandoned house, all decrepit white plaster and gray porchboards. Decrepit white is an oxymoron, Tim said, a not-uninteresting one. He sat in front of the decrepit white wall and raised his arm over his face. I knew without ever needing to develop the film that this was the best photograph of my adultlife, because if I am attuned to pretend ruin, I am also attuned to my modest moments of honest clairvoyance. This photo would prove that there was something desperately hopeful being expressed through my disaster narratives. It would prove that I was not an adult who could tour the world in a white Malcontent, with a man who raised his arm to protect himself from the imaginary menaces I might toss his way.
We drove back over the border.
I started to feel better, instantly, even though Nuevo Laredo and plain old Laredo proved to be big bright splashes of humanity that burned up quickly as we drove north. We were listening to Border Oldies, or maybe we were discussing the oxymoronic possibilities of white malcontent, but either way, we somehow forgot that we'd planned to get gas in plain old Laredo, and it was now almost midnight, and we were far away from humanity.
We passed a sign that said next gas--15 days, 47 nights.
This confused me. We do not measure distances in days and nights, not in America, I said. Those are miles, dumbass, Tim said testily, but somehow I couldn't see it. We were forty-seven nights away from gas.
This was not good. We did not have forty-seven nights' worth of gas. Tim's sunglasses were still pushed up into his hair, he still wore the same secondhand guayabera, and it didn't even smell, because he was superior in that way, a self-cleaning mammal. He was not bothered by the sign. For a man who'd barely had a break in life, he was unhealthily optimistic, especially when the odds were worse than terrible.
What's the plan? I asked. If I'd been a smoker, I would have shakily lit one up. Cliche, cliche, cliche. We cannot even be anxious in an original way.
A plan, why must you always have a plan? Tim looked at me, fake smoking like a little old lady. Think of the worst thing that can happen, and then you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. That's the plan.
This was mean. This was just downright mean.
I'm coincidentally an expert on worst-case scenarios, I told him, puffing away.
Great, he said. Go for it.
Okay, I said. We've run out of gas.
We have to pitch our tent. I don't want to go into the woods because of the scorpion nests, so we pitch our tent on the shoulder. Fortunately, nobody's driving at this time of night. But then we see headlights. A semi. Bringing Einstein air fresheners over the border, tinged with PCP that will kill many adults in America and children in Mexico. We see the lights for miles before they reach us. We hold on to each other as it passes. It's like a tornado. Our car keys and eyeglasses and money are blown away. We are nobody now; we are without a vision for the immediate future.
Tim held up a finger. But why don't you jump out and flag the truck down? he asked.
Good question. Because my mother was raped by a trucker. There's no love lost between my family and truckers.
Your mother was not raped by a trucker. Your mother gives voice lessons in Pacific Palisades.
This is a worst-case scenario, I reminded him. The back story is fair game.
Tim grumbled. He disagreed about the back story, but let me continue.