Authors: Merritt Tierce
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Merritt Tierce
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Selected chapters were previously published, in slightly different form: “Suck It” in
, vol. 92, no. 3 (2007), and subsequently in
New Stories from the South 2008: The Year’s Best
edited by ZZ Packer (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008); “The Dangler” in
Reunion: The Dallas Review
, vol. 1 (2011); and “The Private Room” in
, edited by David Hale Smith (New York: Akashic Books, 2013).
Jacket illustration by Rizon Parein
Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication
Data Tierce, Merritt.
Love me back : a novel / Merritt Tierce.—First edition.
ISBN 978-0-385-53807-7 (hardcover)—ISBN 978-0-385-53808-4 (eBook)
1. Teenage mothers—Fiction. 2. Single mothers—Fiction. 3. Waitresses—Fiction. 4. Restaurants—Fiction. I. Title.
For Gretchen, who loved me forth,
and Evan, who loves me back.
Put Your Back into It
I met all four of them at an off-site catering event for the opening of their new Minimally Invasive Spine, Back, and Neck Group. The one I liked, Cornelius, was the only one I didn’t sleep with, and the only one who asked me out. Trained at Yale so why was he asking out a waitress? I don’t know. Two of the other three were sleazy and the handsomest was arrogant. One so sleazy I fled, though usually I had the stomach for it. Cornelius wore Tommy Bahama hibiscus-print silk shirts, and was more than twice my age, but who knows. Someone told him I was smart and gave him my number. We were to visit the Gordon Parks exhibit at the DMA on a Sunday afternoon. Gordon Parks was my idea and I knew it scored with him—maybe made him think of how I could be an accident, a good one lodged in the mire, just waiting to be sprung.
But late Saturday night I met my dealer in the parking lot of the Kroger on Cedar Springs and bought four twenties. At ten a.m. I hadn’t come down even after smoking a joint and
taking five sleeping pills. In the mirror I had no iris, I was all hole, falling in. I didn’t answer when he called.
He’d asked me out the week before. It felt like a job interview but I went along. Would I be like Jordan? She was a young blond waitress liberated by one of her customers. Hedge fund. After they married they dined at The Restaurant often, before Stars or Mavs games. I’d never want to go back if I’d been her, I’d have felt afraid I might have dreamed it.
I didn’t think that scenario likely, but still I would have answered if I’d been sober. When I recovered I left a message he didn’t respond to. He’d given me one suspicious half-hearted bored chance and I turned out to be a flake. I never saw him in The Restaurant again. I can’t believe he had that much pride.
The three others: I mentioned one so sleazy. Maybe in the end he wasn’t as bad as the other two. I say that because he was uglier, and an ugly man may learn to compensate for his face with some kindness. Perhaps his entire career was compensation for his ugliness—a path to money that could pay women to ignore the way he looked. Pale pink, fat, he reminded me of a hairless mole we’d seen at the zoo. There is no point in asking what the attraction was—that’s the wrong question. Clearly what has gone on in the world of my past can answer only other questions. Like why does a man want to pretend a woman likes him? What does anyone get from pretending? I did the ugly one first. Went to a bar in his neighborhood, drank some whiskey with him.
I ask my memory, Why did I take each next step? There was a hateful man who once said I am a step skipper but no,
each step was taken. That one, then that one, then another, each
. Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque, the chalky consequence of, paradoxically, so many hollow moments.
After the bar, his townhouse. One of those ubiquitous places that is nice and expensive but not special in any way. Three stories. On the first I took off my heels. On the second we reclined on a black leather couch and watched a giant television. He lay behind me and pushed his erection against me. I stared into no-space and regretted my life. On the third floor we got into his bed and he was so happy. He had done it. Gotten me there. Into the house, up the three stories, onto the bed. I couldn’t not let him have it. I lay down next to him and turned my back to him and heard the drawer of the nightstand open. He hurried with the condom as if I might vanish. I let him penetrate me. No, I thought. No no no. I whispered it each time he pushed.
No. Hold on I have to pee, I said. I grabbed my purse from the dresser on the way into his bathroom. Marble floor, high ceiling, two steel sinks set into a long black countertop. The coke looked sweet piled on the black counter and I could see my reflection above it. I looked worried. Don’t worry, I said to myself, We’re leaving.
I turned on both sinks. Surgeons don’t do coke, they drink. I shaped two lines with my debit card and snorted them with a piece of a straw I kept in my purse. I licked the edge of the debit card. I licked the counter. I peed, and checked my nose in the mirror. I imagined her sitting on the
counter, her short legs hanging off, swinging. I went back into the bedroom and said, I’m sorry, I have to go, I’m not well. I was shaking and I felt beautiful. I thought how beautiful it was that I had only one garment to put back on, my black cocktail dress there on the floor. I pulled it over my head. I don’t wear underwear. See you, I said. He didn’t try to stop me.
The other two go together. After work, after I’d served them their steaks at The Restaurant, I met them at a nightclub where we drank and danced. They’d come by cab but I had my car so when we left I drove. A tiny car, and they were both tall, they barely fit. The black one was at least six-five. The white one six-three maybe. The car spiraled around the parking garage of the apartment complex where the white one lived. Up and up and up to the top floor. I could tell they felt ridiculous in my car and it seemed like forever before I could park it. The black one was gorgeous and so composed. You knew he would get whatever he wanted in life. I stood between them and they undressed me. Isn’t she pretty? the white one said. I loved that. How old is she? the black one asked. She’s twenty-one, bro, it’s cool, said the white one. I sucked on the white one while the black one fucked me. He came and then he lay down on the floor to sleep, he was too long for the white one’s bed. I hated staying the night because it was always different in the morning. So when they were both passed out I left, back down the parking garage ramps. Down and down and down.
You’d work at The Restaurant every night and sometimes you’d see the same customers two or three times a week, and then sometimes you wouldn’t see them for six months. The
tall white spine surgeon disappeared for a while but then he came in with his family for Christmas and I took care of them. Good to see you, I said. You too, sweetie, how you been? he said. Someone told me—maybe it was the ugly one, unafraid to bash his own kind—that spine surgeons are weak among surgeons, that you can’t really fix a back so you go in there and fuck around and bill the shit out of the insurance company and refer the patient to pain management.
The tall white one had a girlfriend or fiancée or something with him at that Christmas dinner. She was on his left and I stood on his right to tell the table about the features, which were presented in the raw and under plastic on a large rectangular ceramic platter I’d placed in the center of the table. I described in detail each cut displayed. At the end I said, This evening’s market fish is a Chilean sea bass, pan-seared, and then I felt him reach between my legs and wrap his forearm around my shin, rub my calf. She couldn’t see and neither could anyone else because my back was against a wall. Chef is serving the sea bass over grilled asparagus with a lump crab beurre blanc, I said.
I leaned forward to lift the platter off the table. I could sense another server standing behind me, waiting for it. It weighed twenty pounds so I had to brace myself by stepping forward with one foot and when I did the surgeon slid his hand up the inside of my thigh and put his thumb between my lips. He pressed hard, as if somehow I might not have felt any of it before that. I concentrated on my left hand as it raised the corner of the platter. I placed my right hand under the platter and concentrated on the marbling in the chateaubriand and on where the wineglasses underneath my elbows
were. Oh that looks so heavy! exclaimed the girlfriend. It is, I said. Babe, help her, she said to the surgeon. She’s got it, he said, since there was no subtle way he could extract his hand from between my legs just then. I’m fine, ma’am, I said, but if I throw my back out I’ve got your man’s number. People tittered. I lifted the platter straight up and shelved it backward in space, knowing the server behind me would take it from me as soon as it cleared my guests’ heads. I didn’t turn around as DeMarcus said in my ear Thank you Mama and took the platter.
Let me know if you have any questions about the menu, I said to the table, and we’ll be happy to accommodate any special requests. I looked at the older man across from me—probably the surgeon’s father, who’d probably pay the check—and smiled.
Unless this one’s asking, I said, gesturing at the spine surgeon by tipping the side of my head toward him while I sparkled at the older man. Then I looked down at the spine surgeon and said, I’ve got a big hot plate of nothing for you, sir.
He withdrew his hand and reached for his beer and they all laughed.
The Olive Garden
I’m a hard worker, I tell the manager. We are sitting in a booth. His name is Rajiv George and he is short and portly and has kind eyes. He laughs often. Great, he says. In a restaurant that’s really all you need. We’ll teach you everything else.
Does that mean I’m hired? I ask. The Olive Garden is the fourth restaurant to interview me. I filled out applications at thirteen.
I think so, he laughs. Congratulations. Are you sure you don’t want a breadstick? He gestures at the basket of fluffy wands between us on the table. They glisten with garlic butter.
No thank you, I say. I ate earlier.
Well, you could use some meat on your bones. He twinkles so I try to twinkle back. Employees can have as much bread and soda as they want, he says.
Okay, I say. When do I start?
Now? he asks. It’s only three thirty. You can learn how to make salads and help out tonight. The salad girl called in
sick. Word to the wise, if you’re gonna call in, do it as early as possible. Actually—the wise don’t call in. Find someone to cover the shift. Right, Kendall? He says this to a tall, stunning man who walks past the booth, then pauses to tie on a black apron with three pockets across the front. His white shirt is unbuttoned and I see a leather necklace with a pewter cross that hangs so it just touches the beginning of his chest fur, visible over the top edge of a wife-beater. His sleeves are rolled up and he has snakes tattooed around both forearms.
Right, boss, he says. Who’s this?
He is facing Mr. George, but means me. He pops up his collar and buttons the top button, then takes a blue tie out of one of his apron pockets and ties it with quick aggressive movements. There is a grease spot he is careful to hide within the knot.