Lucky Dogs

Helen Schulman

June 7, 2023 
The following is from Helen Schulman's Lucky Dogs. Schulman is the New York Times best-selling author of six novels, including Come with Me and This Beautiful Life. Schulman has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Sundance, Aspen Words, and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

To say I was lonely the summer I turned twenty-four was like saying Donald Trump’s hair was the precise color of Cheetos dust; there was nothing original about it. Almost all kids crowding close to quarter life feel old, used up, and fucking stuck. Childhood dreams die painful deaths, jobs are boring as shit, and finally it dawns: there is no such thing as love, and most sex sucks. In France, where I was staying, the chic postmenopausal grandmamas sitting outside at the cafés on Boulevard Saint-Germain sipping their coupes de champagne in their leopard-print jeans and cold-shoulder shirts were exultant with the confidence that comes from being sexy without being prey. They seemed to know more about contentment than anyone I ever hung with (be they derelicts or movie stars), as if the volume of the balloon of happiness one was born with was proportionately inverse to the time left to enjoy it.

This was true even for lucky dogs like me: a fugitive in Paris, cursed by beauty, no crap nine-to-fiver, no factory or phone bank to head home from; all I’d had to do to get out of California was point a gun to my manager’s head, rob my own bank, and run. But I’m not sure that even the most resolutely miserable twentysomething’s everyday existential angst was as empty and ceaseless as the black hole I swam in. My isolation was a bright neon-orange warning, like the Trumpster’s shellacked awning. It permeated my skeleton.

Still, I did my best to conceal it. When I was not sitting at home in front of my computer, I walked the damp, dark streets at night, the cobblestones perpetually steaming. To preserve my anonymity, I made my face as blank and expressionless as I could, the way an executioner wears a long black hood. To hide his shame. What shame? To hide his identity! Sometimes, in those medieval fantasy epics, in an effort to stir things up, it’s the condemned to die who wears the shroud. Audiences love a firing squad. Gallows and kicking feet. Victims and criminals. Draaaama. It’s what my limited series on AMC was all about, even though it took place in a present-day overpriced hothouse coastal community, all of us banging some other Barbie’s husband. I was the preacher’s daughter—except this man of God was the trusted head of an exclusive private day school. Newly separated, I taught art sweetly to spoiled children and blew cute, rich fathers in pool houses during fundraisers, while trying to outrun my checkered past. It was typecasting. The TV critic at the LA Times described me as having “an embryonic allure.” My eyes are bigger than big and so widely set apart they look like a bug’s; their violet color I got legit from my mother. Lashes batting, they have been the subject of far too many close-ups.

On those berserk, blood-soaked shows—not mine, the gothic ones—maybe some sad traitor slips the sack over the wronged woman’s head, maybe he’s her erstwhile lover, maybe he’s already fucked her. He’s just following orders. He drops that long black bag over his prisoner’s face so he can’t see her terror or how well she knows him, or her humiliation when the platform drops, when she shits herself and swings. I wore my flat expression in Paris like a lead apron, so no one could see the radioactivity inside.

If I was living in one of the places where I grew up, be it trailer park, or motel room, or the little wooden house with the chipping green paint we had for three and a half years outside of Winthrop, Washington—a western-themed time capsule that the few tourists who bothered to come that far north couldn’t resist— there would be Sunday church, or potluck suppers, or a local dive where you could drink beers and dance on the bar, “community” my daddy’s gal pal back then called it. But I’m sure even there I’d find some way to get canceled. I’ve been run out of town, or should I say towns, so many times . . . It’s almost impossible for me not to speak my mind. My craftsman, weed-selling, anarchist father was what you might euphemistically have called “itinerant.” We moved around a lot, up into Canada sometimes and then back down into Idaho; for a while we lived out of his pickup, so with zero to lose I usually was too stupid to hold back. All’s to say, I have one big fucking mouth.

Paris, France, was not my problem. At twenty-four, I was lonely everywhere I went. I was lonely all the time.

Winthrop was what Daddy called the “most Mayberry” of all our base camps. I rode to school there on a yellow bus like kids do on TV, and skipped two grades because my vocabulary was so damn genius (I read a lot, there never was much else to do), and had numerous, at the time, not-so-sucky semi-siblings, only one of whom got shot at the community college in ’15, Tommy, but on FB I saw he made it out alive, just a flesh wound to the shoulder, a post I’d made certain to “like.” I also had a pet guinea pig, Carmel, her fur a light, creamy amber, but we couldn’t call her that because that was my father’s girlfriend’s name. Humanoid Amber worked at Mercy Medical. That lady felt certain she could diagnose us all, even though she was only a physician’s assistant; my daddy was “immature with a learning disability,” and Tommy was ADHD (his jumpiness saved him: he dived out of one of the second-story classroom windows as the shooter began to fire), and I was manic depressive, up and down, up and down. “You’re on the seesaw of life, Meredith,” Amber liked to say—sitting at the kitchen table, drinking her evening beer, untying her white shoes and ditching her support hose, rubbing the dirt out from between her toes, making me want to puke—which sounds just about right. Plus, she said I had oppositional defiant disorder, which is definitely true and was one of the reasons she finally asked us to leave. That and Daddy sleeping with her sister, Topaz—Topaz and Amber, my hand to God.

I was sad to go, but Daddy wasn’t. He said, “Merry, you’ve never seen the Rockies; the sun shines three hundred days a year, cliffs get so red at dusk they look like steak cooked rare, everyone is rich as Croesus and wants nothing more than to ski and buy handcrafted tables.” We moved to Woody Creek and into a trailer, which we shared with a bartender at the tavern around the corner. My daddy worked in Aspen. I sort of went to high school, got bored, and then started dating high rollers when I slipped into waitressing at the tavern. Talk about your melting pots: oilmen from Texas, Silicon Valley zillionaires, Mexican landscapers, coke-snorting ski bums. We all ate queso together, me behind the bar snarfing down that gooey melted cheese and chips for free. One was a movie producer who got me to Hollywood. The rest you would know if you kept up with your TMZ. I only ever saw my mother when she was getting divorced or was being released from a mental hospital. She was a world-class beauty, always at her most gorgeous upon reemergence, eyes moist and shining, cheeks hollow, hope burning so bright I’d light up alongside her same as a contact high. She’d stayed in LA and then Vegas and LA again; my visits and her comebacks usually dovetailed with those times when Daddy and I fell out. It was inevitable. I swung between my parents like a monkey between two trees. Sometimes it was less lonely being in her shade, sitting on the couch across from her, listening to her make promises.

I thought about this a lot in Paris. Wanting my mommy. Not the real her but the existential mother of my soul. I didn’t have much else to do. In the mornings, I roamed the streets and sat at café tables smoking and drinking those itty-bitty little bitter black cups of coffee that cost too much—I was too broken to eat— watching couples (gay, straight, mixed race, old) walk by holding hands until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I’d go back to my Airbnb on a shit street off Rue de Rivoli, walk up my four flights, and strip down as soon as I triple locked up behind me—with all those fancy public toilets, you’d think not every man in France would take a leak in my doorway; daily, I’d have to broad-jump a stinking puddle.

There was no AC anywhere that boiling summer—half the old people died—except in hotels and the large department stores the French called grands magasins. Sometimes I wandered those, too, out of dullness and a desire to survive: Printemps, Le Bon Marché, Go Sport, flipping through the clothing racks as my sweat dried. But mostly I lay on my stomach on my unmade bed, in my underwear, a teenage boy’s tighty-whities. I’d dive into cyberspace until my teeth ached from grinding and I was seeing double. The MacBook Air was my very own opioid crisis, except in July, I weaned myself off Twitter and googling my own name— victory! The contestant’s scrawny arms shoot up into the empty air! I started writing a book. Sometimes I also played Words with Friends with strangers.

For the first time in my entire life—me of the ever-changing do’s: the Farrah, the Rachel, the Bo Derek, ironic and sexy, new and improved; me of the dyed purple underarm hair, the hennaed hands and shoulders, the mile-high over-the-knee boots and platform shoes, look at me, me!—all I’d wanted was not to be seen, because being seen was what had led me to this disaster. To the Rug, with that fake black toupee like a furry Frisbee landed on his egg-shaped pate and the weird way he carried his weight: those twiggy arms and legs and huge, hard, repugnant stomach, like a tick with a belly full of blood. To nobody giving two shits— not my friends, not my costars, not even Marietta, my agent. I’d always wanted to hang out in Paris, and now had seemed as good a time as any. How was I to know, even when I was invisible, it would totally suck living there, too?

I gave myself a crew cut, wore a knit beanie, bound my breasts. I even trimmed back my eyelashes with a pair of embroidery scissors I’d picked up at an outdoor flea market. I wanted to look as androgynous as possible. I was sick to death of people, and yet self-imposed solitary confinement wasn’t exactly doing me any favors. As day turned to night, sometimes I’d work on my manuscript for hours and sometimes I wouldn’t. Either way, I was at the computer forever, and after a while my skin took on a weird metallic stink, like my mind and the machine were merging, and then I’d take a shower. I’d reemerge from my cave, from the bile of writing, to the sheer boredom of Instagram, crossword puzzles, old Friday Night Lights episodes, and my sad attempts at fan fiction. I’d go back outside, sunglasses on, chest flat underneath a sleeveless black hoodie, the hood itself up even in the heat, a Mall of America burka. The last thing I wanted was a run-in with a reporter.


From Lucky Dogs: A Novel by Helen Schulman. Copyright © 2023 by Helen Schulman. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House.

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