What follows is an excerpt from chapter 7 of ROTTWEILER. It was the last portion of the novel to get written, and it’s arguably the most important part of the story. It is also the episode that I describe in The Story Behind ROTTWEILER – Part 3 (wherein my wife very dutifully saves my ass from trying to publish a novel with a gaping hole in the development of both its plot and its characters).
At this point in the novel, the narrator has been dating his girlfriend Jane (eventually to be his wife) for several weeks and their relationship is still poorly defined. They spend most of their free time together, but their only real mutual interests are food and movies. Although Jane has proved herself to be a bully, it’s only now – as Jon prepares to break their already destructive cycle of overeating – that she demonstrates the true depth of her heartlessness and cruelty.
Constructive feedback is always welcome.
[Chapter 7 begins with Jon and Jane on a date at a local ice cream shop. The next morning, Jon goes to summer conditioning for the high school football team and throws up in front of his coach. Jon has since spent the day haunted by the coach’s blunt dismissal of him as “fat” and trying to work up the courage to confront Jane about their eating.]
That night we were back at the movie theater.
I spent the car ride trying to figure out just when and how to tell her I was NOT going to get something from the concession stand that night. We’d fallen into the routine of splitting a jumbo bucket of popcorn – a tub of greasy, lamp-warmed yellow puffs large enough to feed a third-world country – and often sharing the better part of the free refill. But as we pulled into the parking lot the conversation still lay unbroached.
As we left the ticket window I held my breath and grasped at one lingering hope.
But, as if drawn by the same migratory instincts that send birds south in the winter and make salmon swim upstream, she strode without hesitation to the glass counter.
I dragged my feet.
Jane was almost to the register before she realized I’d fallen behind.
I steeled myself as she rounded on me.
I drew a long, measured breath as she approached.
I remembered the knotting pain in my gut that morning, the burn of warm marshmallow fluff and hot bile in my throat. I remembered the faintness of breath and the eventual humiliation I faced beneath my coach’s unforgiving gaze.
I remembered drowning.
And I remembered the night before.
I remembered eyes. And I refused to be part of another spectacle.
I reached into my pocket and stuffed a crumpled wad of bills into Jane’s hands.
“Get the usual. I’ll meet you in the theater. I have to use the bathroom.”
I ran before she could object.
By the time I got to the theater, it was already dark.
When I found Jane, I left a buffer seat between us and sat down. She was smashing whole fistfuls of kernels into her maw with a dry crunch like snapping bones. She smacked as she chewed, and she barely gave herself time to swallow before starting again.
And she did it again.
Then she stopped.
I could feel her eyes turning sidelong toward me, two glinting green points in the pre-show twilight.
Jane held out the bucket. I looked at it and shook my head.
I stared at the blank screen as she kept chomping.
Jane held the bucket out to me again. I ignored it.
She gave the bucket a shake, fluffing the remaining kernels into a salty golden pillow and wafting their perfume under my nose.
“Not right now, Jane.”
She gave up.
And she sulked.
Soon a single kernel found its way under my nose. It danced in her pudgy fingers as she cooed, “You know you want it.”
I leaned away from her hand.
“Open the hanger, here comes the plane.”
She blew a low raspberry as the engines slowed on final approach. Jane rubbed the kernel against my pursed lips, singing for me to “open up” because “I know you like it”.
“No, Jane.” I finally snapped.
A moment later, she slammed a fistful of hot corn into my face. She pressed her palm against my lips, grinding broken kernels into my cheeks and chin. I tried to protest, but stray pieces forced their way into my mouth and up my nose.
“God dammit, Jane!” I gagged. I coughed and spit into a napkin and wiped the grease from my face. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
But she didn’t hear me.
She was cracking up.
I sat up, crossed my arms, and locked my eyes on the dead screen.
“Oh, don’t be such a big baby.”
My jaw clenched.
“Here.” Jane tried to hand me the bucket. It was her way of making peace.
“Jane, I’m not hungry all right?”
She sighed. “What’s wrong?” It came out as an accusation rather than a question.
“What’s wrong?” I echoed, parroting her tone. “What’s wrong is I got in trouble at football today because I’m getting fucking fat, ok? I got sick this morning because I fucking eat too much. So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m just not hungry right now.”
And – seethed under my breath – “Fuck”.
“So this is all about football?”
I didn’t answer.
Jane stood. I refused to look at her.
“Well, I guess it’s nice to know what really matters to you!”
She buried me under an avalanche of buttery fluff.
But she didn’t just dump it over my head. She fucking threw it at me. The rim of the bucket caught me in the mouth, splitting my lip. It immediately stung from the salt and grease.
Jane stormed out of the theater.
I watched her go.
I stood, determined not to chase after her. I shook the kernels out of my clothes and did my best to clean myself up.
I walked out of the theater, forcing myself not to run after her.
But by the time I got outside, she was gone.
* * *
It was almost an hour later when I spotted Jane on a deserted stretch of two-lane highway a few miles from the theater. She was walking with her arms wrapped around herself on the shoulder of the road. I drove past her and pulled over. I sat and collected myself then stole a peek back at her in the rearview mirror.
Jane was glaring at me through the crimson glow of the taillights, sweat-soaked hair draped and plastered over sullen eyes as she stalked towards the car.
I tried to look at myself in the mirror, but my eyes kept darting away and landing again on Jane. Finally, I forced myself to meet my own gaze. I held it, then took one more look at Jane as she came closer.
I got out of the car and started walking toward her. Neither her pace nor her gaze changed, but there was no mistaking the riled intensity of her body language as she approached. Each step seemed to wind her tighter. Suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of impending release, I backpedaled and sat against the trunk of the car.
It wasn’t until she reached the pools of red light in the gravel that Jane started to quicken her strides. She closed the remaining distance between us in a hard charge.
I got as far as, “Jane-” before I was silenced by an explosive blow to the left side of my face. I could tell from the high crack that Jane’s hand had been open. But unprepared as I was, my jaw wrenched awkwardly from my cheek and my head spun with a sudden snap. I had to plant a hand on the trunk to keep from falling over.
“DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO ME THAT WAY AGAIN!” Jane shrieked. I winced against the high, gravelly wail of her voice.
I shook my head, stretched my jaw to make sure it still worked, and straightened up. “Jane, what-”
“What?” She screamed. She took another open-hand swing at my face. I was too slow to block it, but I was at least able to brace myself this time. “WHAT?” She screamed again with another swing. I got my hands up, but I still took most of the blow to the side of the head. “WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT!?!” She continued to screech, now pummeling me with a barrage of rights and lefts that punctuated each repetition. Getting nowhere by pounding on my arms, she started attacking my chest as she raged on. “After what you did to me you have the fucking balls to ASK ME ‘WHAT’!?!” She closed her fists for those last three words. She hammered me with three deeply concussive blows to the upper ribcage, each timed to the rhythm of her cries.
I fell back on to the trunk, bouncing my head off of the rear windshield in the process. I lay there with my eyes closed and my face wrenched with pain. I could just barely make out the animal shrieks of Jane’s manic, labored breathing over the ringing in my own head.
I let out a long, frustrated groan and propped myself up on my elbows. With measured deliberation, I peeled open my eyes and looked at Jane. She was bathed in the deep sanguine glow of the taillights. All I could see of her were bleary shadows cast in red and black. She was giving me a cold, dead glare. Her green irises were steel gray in the red light. The whites of her eyes were incendiary.
I was staring into an eclipse.
“Jane, I’m sorry.” I groaned.
“I’ll show you sorry!” She screamed as she charged. She was trying to mount the rear of the car, clawing and scrambling at me in blind fury.
Desperate, I put a foot into her belly to keep her at bay. When she started pounding on my thigh and taking swings at my crotch I had no choice but to fight her off of me.
I didn’t kick her, but I pushed her away with all my strength.
Jane staggered backwards and stumbled to her ass on the soft-shoulder. She winced and cried out, almost immediately picking up her hands and shaking them off. I could hear the tinkle of cinders falling to the ground around her.
For an instant, my jaw fell open. Then I was springing to my feet and striding toward her. I put my arm out to help her up and said, “Oh my God, Jane-”
“Don’t you touch me, Jon!” She screamed. “Don’t you dare fucking touch me!”
On instinct, I scanned our surroundings to make sure nobody could hear her. There was nothing but undeveloped residential lots and half-dead landscaping for as far as I could see. But I kept looking. I was horrifically aware of what would happen if a car passed us in that moment.
I took another step toward Jane and put my hand out again. “Let me help you up.”
She didn’t hear me over her own squealing taunts. “What are you going to do now, Jon, hit me?”
Without realizing what I was doing, I reeled back and threw my hands up. My eyes darted from horizon to horizon again.
Jane glared at me and a guillotine grin spread across her face. She leaned back on one hand with disconcerting haughtiness.
“Jane, let’s just get out of here.” I pleaded.
She laughed harder.
She started to rise.
Streaks of scarlet seemed to drip from her grim teeth and pool on the pale flesh of her face. “Hit me, Jon.”
I took another step back.
“C’mon, Jon.” She taunted. “Hit me.” It was almost a snarl.
“Hit me!” She screamed. She lunged forward and shoved me as hard as she could. I staggered.
“Hit me!” She said again with another push. “Hit me!” She reared up and brought her arms forward so hard that she was practically punching my chest. I winced and staggered again. She wound up and started to swing as she shrieked, “Be a man and hit me, you weak son of a bitch!”
I caught her by both arms and drew her to me until we were almost face-to-face. There was a momentary flash of panic in her eyes, a sudden flush of terror on her face as I pulled her out of the light and into my massive shadow. My jaw was set and I could feel the animal sneer on my face. My hands seemed to squeeze her so hard that my arms were beginning to tremble with the effort.
Then her face began to soften. She glanced down at my hands, then back up into my eyes. The anger rose in a fiery rush up my neck and into the back of my head, but I could feel the frenzy already beginning to fade from my face. I forced myself to keep hold of her, to wring Jane’s arms until she gave in. I didn’t care what kind of marks I left on them.
Or so I thought.
My muscles started to quiver.
She looked down at my hands again.
I squeezed harder. My arms shook with the mania of it. A quavering titter worked its way into Jane’s voice as the vibrations hit her.
I looked down at my own hands. I was expecting white knuckles. I was expecting red, dimpled flesh oozing between my fingers. I was expecting the first signs of bruising on the fat of Jane’s arms.
I saw nothing.
I barely had any grip on her at all.
My arms started to cramp with the effort, but no matter what I did, I could not get them to squeeze any harder.
My throat started to rumble in frustration.
I looked up at Jane. She was laughing so hard she was beginning to tear up. She glared at me with bitter, mocking eyes
I screamed in impotent fury and cocked a hand back. Jane looked at it, but there was no sign of alarm on her face this time. I brought my arm down with a scream of unmitigated rage. But for as hard and as fast as I swung, my hand settled with almost no impact back into the meaningless grasp I’d had on Jane before.
Jane’s laughter began to sputter. “You can’t even do it, you fucking pussy.” She almost spit the words at me.
I growled again and shoved both of Jane’s arms away. It was such a weak move she barely lurched a single step.
I turned my back on Jane and paced away. As I was turning to face her again I was met by a red-and-black flash and a gale-force impact that rattled through my whole body. I sprawled back into the gravel and racked my head on the rear bumper of the car.
Through the sudden fog that had fallen over me, I heard the crunch of three manic strides then saw Jane’s red silhouette looming above me. The sharp streaks of dark shadow cutting across her pale flesh made her look leaner, more angular, more savage than I had ever seen before.
“Don’t you EVER…” she growled as her right hand whipped into the side of my face.
“Touch ME…” Louder this time as she lashed out at me again. I began to list.
“Like THAT…” Almost a scream. And this time a closed fist driven directly into my temple. My eyes burst open and my head began to ring. I had to put a hand down in the rocks to keep from falling over.
“AGAIN!” A full-on shriek that pierced my ears and echoed in my already pounding skull. Bones this time. Like a bed slat coming down on my cheek bone. A left. A backhand.
Two hands were on my shirt and I straightened up with a jerk. “EVER!” She shook me and my head cracked against the back of the car. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!?!”
She let go of me and I heard her feet crunching in the gravel. I winced and seethed as she slammed the car door. She shut it so violently that I could feel the vibrations pass through the rear bumper and into my skin.
I slumped and finally let myself fall to the ground, neither awake nor aware enough to hold myself up any more. Some time later I awoke with a start and a bawl. My head erupted in pulsating agony. The car horn was blaring and it wouldn’t stop.
I spit blood onto the pavement, then lurched to my feet and staggered to the door.
* * *
We rode the rest of the way to Jane’s house in silence. She sat with her arms and legs crossed and stared with dead-set eyes at the dark road ahead of us. I kept both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the highway, and almost all of my attention on controlling the pain. I took shallow but carefully measured breaths, occasionally having to suck air through my teeth and wring my hands on the steering wheel to stifle waves of nausea. I kept myself from leaning back against the headrest for fear of irritating the lumps I could already feel swelling there. And I avoided turning my head for the certainty of crippling dizziness.
When I pulled into her driveway, Jane unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me. She stared at me with a quizzical, almost concerned gaze. I stole a hesitant glance at her from the corner of my eye.
Jane reached up and turned my face toward hers with an indelicate caress of my chin. I closed my eyes, clenched my jaw, and drew a sharp breath through my nose. My head continued to spin after she’d stopped moving it, and I waited for the sudden vertigo to pass before I finally looked at her.
“Oh, Jon.” She cooed, stroking my left cheek.
I blinked back a sudden welling in my eyes. “Jane.”
She took hold of my whole face, my chin resting in the webbing of her hand. Then she squeezed. I winced against the sudden flare of pain where her fingers dug into the swelling on my cheek. She waited for me to silence myself before she spoke.
She never raised her voice. She didn’t even sound angry. There was a frigid parental affection in her tone as she said, “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
With that, she left.
* * *
I drove home that night at a crawl, rarely even approaching the speed limit. I didn’t trust myself to keep the car under control, and I was really hoping to avoid my parents.
And I needed time to think.
What in the hell had just happened?
I replayed the night in my mind as I drove. I watched myself sitting next to Jane in the theater while she stuffed her face. I watched her hold the bucket out to me over and over again. And over and over again I watched myself absolutely refusing to share. I watched myself overreacting and yelling at Jane when she tried to playfully entice me with fistfuls of warm kernels. I heard the three F-words come out of my mouth: football, fat, and fuck.
I’d basically called Jane fat, hadn’t I?
I watched her dump the rest of the popcorn over my head after I said it.
I wasn’t sure after that.
I remembered rage. And fear. And pain.
I remembered never saying, “I’m sorry.”
I remembered humiliation.
And now all I could feel was sheer fucking embarrassment.
How could I have been so stupid? It was all my fault, wasn’t it?
I’d been steadily losing speed as I thought through the events of the night, and now I was creeping to a stop on the side of the road. I put the car in park and sat.
t all came to me in a torrent. I clamped my eyes shut against the sudden flood of tears, but it was no use. They poured through in sheets and sputtered in my mouth as I let out a wail of loathing and self-pity and agony that seemed to echo forever in the once-silent passenger cabin. My head started to throb again and I clutched at it with both hands. I was sobbing so loudly that the sound of it rang in my own ears. The tightly swollen lump on the back of my skull began to pound. My jaw hitched and ached as my mouth fell open. The nascent welt on my cheek burned as it stretched.
I beat my palm down against the steering wheel, then turned and pounded my fist into the seatback next to me. I punched the upholstery until my hand started to burn.
I bawled one more stifled, choking sob into the stillness surrounding me.
Then that was it. There was nothing left.
I was a shell. An empty wrapper. Or a piece of gum chewed into grainy, flavorless oblivion and left to be trampled where I’d been spat out.
I was numb and I was done.
I stopped to wash up at a gas station on the way home. I marched to the bathroom without breaking stride and without making eye contact with the attendant. I went to the sink and let the water run until either the sulfur smell faded or I just got too used to it to notice. I really don’t know which.
When I looked at the mirror my heart skipped. I gasped and leapt back, slamming into the stall door behind me.
I peered at the man across from me. There was a stranger staring back. He had a round, ashen face that was turning red and swelling on one side. He had broad but broken shoulders that were hunched in defeat. And he had an empty expression of abject misery.
I turned my head away with a jerk. Pain seared through my neck and I winced.
When it finally subsided I opened my eyes.
He was still there.
And I refused to look at him.
I went back to the sink with my head down. The bottom of the mirror had fogged over from the steam. I put my scraped palms under the water and ground my teeth against the pain. I held them there for as long as I could stand it. When I pulled them away they were deep pink with the heat.
I tried to splash some of the water on my face. It stung too badly to try a second time. I turned the knob as far as I could the other way and waited again. There was another whiff of sulfur, fainter this time, and then the sensation of gathering cold. I touched the water to my face, letting it soothe my bruises. I dabbed gently at the skin without ever really pressing my hands to my cheeks.
When I finally left, the front of my shirt and most of my forelocks were soaked. I hustled past the attendant again, got in my car, and drove home.
* * *
I pulled in the driveway a little after 11:30. The downstairs lights were still on.
I walked into the house with no attempt at subterfuge. No point in sneaking in when my mother was up and knew I was late.
I walked down the hallway to the family room. She was in her recliner with her back to me.
“I’m home, mom.”
“Good.” She leaned back and peered up at me, only seeing the right side of my face. “Where have you been?”
“Jane and I were at a movie. It was longer than I thought. We just got out a little while ago, so I ran her home.” My mother was still looking at me, so I added, “And here I am.”
“And here you are.”
“I’m sorry.” I said. “I won’t do it again.”
My mom leaned forward to rise from her chair. I turned to leave and blurted too quickly, “Anyway, I’m going to bed, mom.”
“Jon, stop.” Her voice was too stern to ignore. I couldn’t have kept running if I’d wanted to.
I peered back over my right shoulder at her. “Yeah, mom.”
“I just wanted to tell you good night.”
“Ok, mom.” I refused to turn and face her. “Good night.”
I was about to walk away again when she stopped me with another, “Jon.”
She stepped toward me. “Your father doesn’t know that you were-”
When she stopped, I braced myself.
Fervor rose in her voice almost immediately. “Jon, what is that. Are you all right?”
I finally turned around. She reached up and gently brushed the swelling on my face. “What happened? Does it hurt?”
“Yes, mom.” I pushed her hand away. “So please don’t touch it.”
“What is it?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes-”
“It was an accident at football this morning.” I said. “We were doing a pass-rush drill and I accidentally took an elbow to the face. No big deal.”
“Why didn’t you say anything before?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t think it was important. It seemed fine. I guess it didn’t start puffing up until this evening.”
“You guys were doing contact?”
“Yeah.” I sighed. “I think technically we’re not supposed to, but I doubt anyone’s going to say anything about it.”
She crossed her arms. “And you were doing this without pads?”
“Well, yeah.” I said. “It wasn’t really supposed to be a lot of hitting. It just happened. It was an accident.”
“But you’re all right.”
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
I was standing there chewing on the inside of my cheek when my mom finally said, “Jon?”
“Yeah.” I said. “It’s fine, mom. Don’t worry about it.”
She sighed. “All right. Just please put some ice on it before you go to sleep tonight.”
“I will mom.”
She gave me a hug.
I held on.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Jon?”
I kept holding on, but didn’t say anything. So much flooded my mind in that moment. But nothing came to me with the clarity of words.
And what was I really supposed to say, anyway?
I grudgingly let go of my mother. I sniffed and I coughed before I answered. “I’m fine.” I hesitated again.
“Good night, mom.”
I took two bags of frozen vegetables from the freezer and went up to my room.
I half-expected her to follow me.
I really hoped she would.
My mother came upstairs a half-hour later. I was still laying in bed awake with a makeshift ice pack on each of my lumps. I followed the percussion of her feet on the hardwood floor. She stopped outside my door.
I closed my eyes and waited for the knock. I started to tear up again as I laid there wishing for her to knock.
But there was only silence.
I stifled a sob.
Then I was out of bed and bounding across the room. “Mom, wait.”
I opened the door to darkness. I could hear the water running in the master bathroom down the hall.
My breath came only in shallow hitches as I stood there alone in the blackness. I waited until I heard the creak of my mother climbing into bed and the click of her lamp going out for the night. Then I backed into my own room and closed the door.
I told myself it was better this way.
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