Excerpt

“Shoebox World”

Honor Levy

May 15, 2024 
The following is a story from Honor Levy's new collection My First Books. Honor Levy is a writer from California. She graduated from Bennington College in 2020. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and New York Tyrant and been anthologized in Flash Fiction America.

I took the Adderall. I took a lot of shit from my ex, Snowball. Then I took some more Adderall and took the class on Marx and took my shit out of Snowball’s room. I like the kind of Adderall with the sugar coating. It must be the kind for kids, the really evil kind, so easy to swallow, so blue, so sweet. When people say they like candy I want to ask them, have you tried Adderall? When people say they like Adderall I want to ask them, have you tried being in love?

For fun, I Google “Marx quotes on fun,” but instead of Karl I get Groucho. He says, “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.” I’m not crazy about reality either. Neither was Snowball. If he was here now, he would tell me to write that he wasn’t crazy about anything. He was just crazy, overall—but maybe he wasn’t. Truthfully, we made each other crazy, and we knew it, so we had to make our own little universe, with its own little laws where we weren’t, where the way we treated each other was normal. But the upkeep of our private nation, our blossoming society, our new state, our paracosm, our people’s republic was beyond us. He was beyond me and I was beyond him. Reality was somewhere further off.

The psychiatrist asks me if I take pills recreationally. I tell her the truth and the truth is no. I don’t do anything recreationally these days. It’s spring and I’m not in love anymore. Nothing can be fun without him. Nothing that is real can be fun. I take the pills and I feel less real. I take the pills and I work. Work, I know, will set me free. Free from what? I don’t know, but I need to escape. It’s true. Arbeit macht frei.

Before Snowball was Snowball he was my best friend, and we were in Montreal and it was snowing. The only fight we’d ever had was there on that street, with snowballs. He won. We ducked into the warmth of one of those radical bookstores. There were inspiring posters with red blocky text, workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains, and true‑believing poseurs with red blotchy cheeks. what if the revolution started right here, right now? When I look back and I remember how cold it was and how young I was, I wonder what if it had? What if the revolution had started right then, right there? With him holding my hand, whispering in my ear, Mollie I have to tell you something.

What?

I actually love you.

I was so cold and so happy and so young and all I could think was, what if we built a snowman? What if we dropped out of school and ran away? What if we joined the Naxalite–Maoist insurgency? What if we died for the cause? Or first, let’s move to Bushwick. Let’s make a five‑year plan. What if you and I built something just the two of us for each other, right here, right now? What if we took a shoebox and made a diorama and shrunk ourselves down small and read our books and snorted our stimulants and made out all night and ate a ton of candy and no one could interrupt us, or tell us that we were unhealthy, or that it would never work, because we were so little and the shoebox was so big.

When there was no pumpkin ice cream at the dining hall or when I didn’t want to go to my 8 a.m. class, Neoliberalism and its Discontents, or when I wasn’t having fun at the party, Snowball would tell me, “Look, Mollie, you can’t always get what you want.” When he couldn’t afford to visit me over Christmas break after all or when he wanted to eat chicken noodle soup or when he wanted me to come straight to his room after class, I would do my best to give him what he wanted. You can’t always get what you want, but when you love someone else, you’ll do anything for them. My parents had done that for me, but his parents apparently had not. I was used to getting what I wanted. He had never gotten what he needed. Maybe I wanted too much from him and maybe he wanted too much from me, but it didn’t feel like want. It felt like need.

I need Adderall. I want my friend who has a prescription to give me the pills for free. He doesn’t and I can’t understand why. He has so many of those orange bottles tucked away behind his socks and Calvin Klein tighty‑whities, filled with so many little blue pills that he won’t even take. He tells me, “It doesn’t make sense to give them away for free, when I can make money off of them.” He can sell them to freshmen who will pay double what I pay. He tells me they’re a hot commodity. I tell him to take a fucking class on Marx. I tell him we all have fucking ADHD. I tell him this isn’t fair. I tell him I want it. I tell him I need it. I tell him there’s no difference.

Next step: I want the psychiatrist to write me a prescription for it, or something like it—I’m not picky. She can tell that I want it, but she can’t tell if I need it, so she doesn’t write it and I can’t understand why. It’s her job. She works for Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA) and Global Pharmaceuticals, supplying their drugs, filling their pockets, and technically, according to my capitalism brain, she works for me. But apparently she’s afraid that a girl like me, so privileged, so LA, so unhappy with her weight, will use them recreationally, not studiously, not as advised. Maybe she’s right. I don’t really need anything, except oxygen and clean water and around 1,200 calories a day. I want to be loved and I want to have fun and I want to build a snowman, but I don’t need to.

What the hell does recreationally even mean?

I tell my friend I need them. My homework is not labor. I don’t take pills when I babysit or intern or bartend. Digging, breaking, building, real work, labor in its purest sense, is the altering of matter, the production of something from nothing, the exchange of our body’s energy and life force for the creation of something new. So although work sets you free, as it turns out, the ultimate freedom is death. When you are dead you are nothing and nothing is the only thing that cannot be caged and contained. You are dust and you shall return to dust and you will try to smile, but you’ll have no teeth.

Snowball wanted to abolish work. He wanted no jobs and he wanted them never, but before we met he was seventeen and worked at the health food store and didn’t eat. He looked at photos of the camps being liberated for thinspo and couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs. This put him in the hospital, where he met some great purging individualists and some fucked‑up overachievers and some nice nurses who loved their jobs and a doctor who told him that he was sick because he was traumatized because he was poor. He read Marx and turned eighteen and he got better or “better” and he came to school to work, and he met me and we loved and we hated.

No matter how pure our consciousness and how hard we struggled it wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to ever work, because in me he saw refracted everything wrong with the world. And no matter how intricate the laws of our world inside the shoebox became, I was the lost and last princess, Anastasia Romanov, on Halloween in sixth grade and got the swine flu at a party in the Hollywood Hills, and for him that summed it all up. I told him that story and he didn’t laugh, because I had so much and knew so little.

I had no idea what the revolution was. I had a nice house on a hill. I had parents who wrote me postcards. I had money for bagels and bus tickets. I had no brothers or sisters. I had a nanny from Guatemala. I had a mommy who was always working away. I had a head that liked to bang against the brick fireplace for fun. I had a tutor from France. I had a little diary with a lock. I had trapeze lessons on Saturdays. I had therapy on Tuesdays. I had an endocrinologist and three orthodontists. I had a gap between my front teeth, but it got closed. I had seven grandparents. I had presents from them all. I had Hanukkah and Christmas. I had chai lattes behind my parents’ back. I had to throw up. I had my toes painted magenta. I had to grow up. I had so much help. I had straight A minuses. I had scraped knees. I had to tell people my name ended in “ie,” not “y.” I had no mean words in my mouth. I had just registered to vote. I had no hate. I had never prayed.

I had never had to pray. I had an allergic reaction to a persimmon. I thought I had been in love before. I had never heard of critical theory. I had been on many vacations and swum in many oceans. I had T‑Mobile but switched to AT&T. I had a merit scholarship. I had never orgasmed. I had never been hurt. I had lots of shoes. I had never read Marx. I had to work on myself. I had an internship in midtown. I had never seen snow fall from the sky. I had decided on a Brazilian wax. I had ADHD. I had some stuff that he didn’t have. I had too much to drink on New Year’s Eve. I had vomited on his shoes. I had made him really mad. I had to check my privilege. I had to FaceTime him. I had all his freckles cataloged. I had a grandma who owned an apartment building. I had to convince him that he was beautiful. I had his number memorized. I had to tell him where I was going and who I was seeing. I had never been so happy. I had never been so sad. I had ruined everything. I had done it again. I had no idea. I had a lot to learn. I had to be taught. I had him. Then I didn’t.

*

I don’t mind what a lot of people call mansplaining. The idea that anyone, no matter their gender identity, takes the time out of their day to look at me and talk to me and try to teach me something means so much. I don’t care if I already know it. I probably don’t know it the way they know it. I don’t mean they know more, I mean they know differently, and I want to know everything everyway. That’s my fatal flaw, or one of them. It’s why I wanted Adderall and why I wanted to fall in love. I’ve tried listening to podcasts on MSG or AIDS while reading books about DMT or NYC. Headphones in, listening. Eyes locked, reading. It doesn’t work. I absorb nothing. I have tried to learn alone, but I need someone to teach me. I didn’t know about Marxism or post‑Marxism or modernity or postmodernity or what obscurantist even meant or how to suck a dick or how to have an orgasm or how to make sacrifices, but I learned, because I love to learn and someone was there to teach me. For that I think I will always be grateful.

We always pick up each other’s calls. It’s only fair. Maybe it’s the only thing that’s fair. Over the phone he tells me that the more he learned about my world, the harder it became to govern our own small one. His world, of alcoholic opera singers and state‑run hospitals and Seattle homelessness, was the real world. My world, of orthodontics and SAT prep and “Good night, Mollie,” every night, was another real world. It was no fair and nothing I could do would make it fairer. The shoebox world was doomed from the start. A failed state. We wouldn’t be collectivizing the Adderall sector. No matter how hard you love or work, or how bad you want or need, or how perfectly you build or abolish, real communism has never been tried, and never will be. Or maybe it will. Maybe we did, I don’t know, I don’t know, and history hasn’t ended yet.

I had so much. I always did, but it was never enough. Before it ended, because he suddenly left, never to really return, everything I wrote was about the same thing, playing pretend. I was obsessed with imagination games and the theater and building little worlds in shoeboxes. I wrote about Hélène Cixous, pontificating like an absolute loser, “I have always been interested in the pretend, make‑believe, what isn’t there. Perhaps this is because so much of what is there is terrible, or perhaps it is because I have felt that what was there is not mine.” I added, in woke Nickelodeon mode, “I have spent most of my life trying to make a place of belonging, something that is mine and that I want to share.” I wanted to build things so that I could own them. I didn’t know that property is theft. I hadn’t had a boyfriend to tell me that yet. I wanted to say: this is my shoebox, my play, my house. This is where I am not a vampire or a party crasher. This is where I belong. In love, I thought I had finally found where I belonged, not a place but a person. When I realized I couldn’t make Snowball better, fix the broken parts, I decided that I would just have to rebuild myself instead. To build, you must destroy, so I tried, but I couldn’t and I didn’t. It was hard work and I was a lazy bitch and he was so fucking done and I was so so so sorry, but sorry doesn’t mean anything coming out of my mouth.

Nothing meant anything coming out of my mouth. My rules for our world weren’t followed. Please, don’t yell at me in public. Please, don’t punch the wall. Please, don’t push. Please, don’t give me the silent treatment. Please, don’t call me that. Please, don’t take pills. These rules couldn’t be followed because they were reactions to his rules—please, don’t smoke. Please, don’t go out. Please, don’t talk to those people. Please, don’t take pills—and if I couldn’t follow his rules he wouldn’t follow mine either. It was fair, but reality isn’t fair. Our shoebox, an interstice in the big bad unjust world, was supposed to be tit for tat, fuck up for fuck up, reparation and redistribution and revolutions in October and November and December.

In summary, Look at Russia, communism doesn’t work! or Look at college, the revolution is not coming! or Look at me, don’t date someone who will make you go to DSA meetings when you could be getting a manicure or reading a good book. Sometimes the personal is not political. When the wind was howling outside the bookstore window and I could still imagine a revolution, I forgot to think of the Romanovs or myself. Let’s build our comrades out of snow. Let’s not let them melt. Let’s share everything until there’s nothing left. We actually love each other. Right?

__________________________________

From My First Book. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Honor Levy.




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