What You Could Have Won

Rachel Genn

November 5, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Rachel Genn's latest novel, What You Could Have Won, about a relationship born of regrettable events and female resilience in the face of social control. Genn is a neuroscientist, artist, and writer of two novels. She has written for Granta, 3AM Magazine, and Hotel, and is working on Hurtling, a hybrid collection of essays about the neuroscience, art and abjection of artistic reverie. She lives in Sheffield, England.


‘Getting high before a show is not cool.’

‘So go tell Catherine.’

Lucien pauses then asks, ‘You want a repeat of The Fillmore?’

On stage in San Francisco, you had punched Lucien because he was trying to grab your ass with both hands. Who knew that your grasshopper-green ice skater skirt was all the way tucked through your underwear when it felt like the hem was right where it should have been? What the hell were you supposed to think was going on? 

The possibility that Henry was out there tonight must be kept open and you looked out from your hiding place into the crowd and you heard Lucien approach but keep his distance. Funny how hope can easily light up hate. Hate to you feels a lot like disappointment. Please don’t start telling me that there is nowhere to smoke in the desert, Lucien you skinny stand-up slug.

Catherine as always was panicking. She has an idea you can’t cope with open spaces so of course she is no help. The crowd is chanting your name loud and then you feel it as a stab or a bite: the announcement of his absence. And in a need to tip this pain straight out of your hands, you turn to the crowd to blame them because if they listen to you, Henry must turn away; it is the physics of how you fit in. Only now can you see, math messes with what you want to believe in so you will blame the crowd for as long as you can. You hear him say Blame minus truth really burns, but it does not mean he is there. You can’t bear to look at the crowd after that and when you turn from the truth, it floats wherever your eyes go, an afterimage, white against the red floor of the wilderness, the blue-smudged distance. You can’t shake it. You should not have picked The Sopranos. You should never have left him alone because it gave him all the space he needed to forget you and you can think of nothing but the relish of freedom that his pirouette displayed. The bus hadn’t even left the parking lot.

You are forced now to know that you gave Henry your rights because you didn’t want them. Therefore, if Henry doesn’t see you seeing this, you don’t see this. If he is not here to interpret for you then you are over, fallen, filming the floor. But when exactly did you go? You search the faces, your gaze travels across rows upon rows shouting ‘Astrid’ then it pulls back from the eerie space of distance to the edge of the crowd where the heads and faces become froth. You have waited and Henry has not come: he is not here and you will have to keep your stupid bucket-of-mud heart swinging for this last night of the tour and to do this you fasten your hand tight around the pink, you bring it into your chest and you unscrew it.

‘Catherine won’t be happy,’ said Lucien, standing beside you like a traffic cop.

‘They are here for me.’

This crowd is not going to disappear. Let the singing turn to tongues, you think. You want this longing out of your hands but where to put it? You swallow all of the pink in front of Lucien, dinking the upended mouth of the container back and forth against the fine edges of your teeth, rattling it at the end making an ahhh noise, curling your tongue into a tube while it sizzles at the back near your throat where nothing ever touches. Man! It burned but you swallow it up good, and when it’s gone, it’s depressingly good to know that all decision went down with it and knowing that is all you need to keep going. You outright hope it is doing damage, says your face. Lucien shakes his lizard head.

There is no deciding now and that is how it is. Soon enough, there will be no more easy choices at all and that is a phantom tragedy that escapes these two eyes and breathes only into the future. You take Lucien’s offering for balance, do both lines: that should give the pink force and scope. Only one song in, go figure, you feel the edges of how you are to be changed, separate.

Now knowing no                          longer recognizes me

and that is                                     how it is.

Feelings, meet Thoughts.             Thoughts punches

Feelings in the gut                       then stomps on

its head. I                                     watch her go

her way. I                                     can make noises

that sound like                            words. She can

impersonate a singer.                   Let’s see her.


From beside the stage, Sluggo twizzles his finger at the floor and her body does what it is told and she is facing them again. Is it the law to face the audience when she has a microphone? Listen to that. Their noise is the music for her. The faces are the faces of people she doesn’t know who are saying the same words that she is going to. Fake it, everyone, don’t hesitate. If they all fake it it’s true. She enters into it, why not? You know, so the shapes are the same for all of them. So they all get it. That must be what is meant by safety – faces that she hasn’t seen before and yet are saying the same things as she is. She thinks they don’t like me but when it’s just the words without their roots making a mess into her, it means she can rip right through this and go even faster and smoother. Wow, she is sweating and the sweat is soaking her jumpsuit around the crotch and they point at it; maybe because the color down there is not the same as up above. The color bleeds, royal to mid- to sky blue, lightening toward her knees and if you want to take a look at her face right now it says relief, that’s better. She stops singing because they can’t believe it and when she crouches she pulls the elastic into a point and a cupful of air bounces against her mound as she lets go. She’s right on the edge of the stage and she pulls her elasticated crotch further into a squat blue glitter cone and when she lets go this time it spatters first then puffs back: the elastic shivers back to her cunt. Do it again, just to watch it happen. A guitarist twangs, it feels the right thing. They shout what could be warnings but just as correctly they could be hopes and wishes. She looks back out at them as much as to say did you see that? Dance for them! Dance again! That’s what they want. The sun is going down on these people, the elastic can’t stop it and these people who are a lot more people, more people than she can see, are telling her to come here. Over here! they say. No one tells her not to go. She can leave the stage. Lucien says no! But she knows her body can say she is going. She walks out into them, on top of them, and she stands on their hands and their heads, and faces if their heads are back. Behold! they say with their necks, throats like snake bellies join to make a path, her steps are working like they do when she walks up the wall and she moves forward and she don’t go down. She escapes above them, her heels are solid cupped in palms and she peels the jumpsuit from her body. She is bare to the waist and she leans forward because what they have been trying to tell her is that this must be the sea because she has to be at the prow of their boat. Don’t confuse her some of them say with their arms. Put her to the floor and let her run through a trench of them in the dust and they do this and they part and she sees (she gets it, she’s got it!) that without them she can sprint fast and clean in bare feet and she imagines the arms of that jumpsuit fill up with air and hinge stiff behind her. The sea is red and she is down with it. This heat makes her stay down there and the heads and shoulders are the roiling boil and she suddenly is the stone in their soup. She clings to calves. Heavy. Get her up. Her blue sleeves dangle, her chest is bare, she is no longer moving forward very fast. She’s not cooler up here above them. Her legs are apart and they have her tight round the ankles and she stands making a firm triangle of noise. The noise never flares up past her knees. It shoots toward the mountains from her crotch like a pussy-laser. Is that where she left him? No one is telling her what to do and she needs nothing. She looks down to see how some of them have only grown so far. That is so neat. Lucien is here with them, shouting, waving what he wants her to do and she can hear him above the words that are coming up from the crowd she is walking on but she turns on him because what there is to care about is not here in Black Rock and the names that remain choke under these feet and the inescapable dust. She steps on some faces that say they are laughing and faces that say they are upset and faces that say they are surprised. A shoulder disappears as she steps on it (Feel Jesus) and she drops down and a man with a face that says I’m sick catches her and pushes her back on top of heads with his hand hooked under her crotch, his thumb in her ass but for the elastic. He fully wipes his hand on her leg and she thinks whoever this is happening to should be mad but without despair or encouragement she becomes free to go and go. It’s obvious with any processes, coming, going, and she sees hope or despair but she doesn’t know what to do with them and so it doesn’t matter. She has never been free before and that makes this the place: it could not be anywhere else and she could not be with anyone else. You guys! You guys make the floor come under her feet and you walk with her and you touch her and you pull down her outfit and she steps out of it and you lift her again and she sees a three-story head between her and the mountains and below it black ribs and far through them the terracotta mountain gone gray. Two hands hold and squeeze her tits and there are whispers that there are fires. You have arrived. You part to show her. One fire is dead orange. Flat. The kind of orange forever. Nothing holding her. She doesn’t laugh but she could do that if someone reminded her of how that is different from singing and talking. You shout to her over a low glowing mound. It is obvious that she must get to them. Her face gets touched and two hands hold her neck and her feet leave the floor. This is what she does. She hangs. In your hands. About her, all this freedom. A face rubs round the scarf and breathes through it into her hair, an animal’s face comes through. It’s breaking hers and it won’t be mended. Animal faces are easy she tells everyone who can hear and see her and she walks in through the orange and it’s all suddenly fall and give up and she suddenly falls and gives up. Flames finally tell her again what it was she wanted. Flames are good at telling her what she wants. That’s easy! She can do that. She’s not even in and you stop her. Someone comes through and pulls her up and out horribly. In a tin man’s funnel hat she sees that silk burns quick in the desert.


And now I wish my heart was still in it because I’m on fire and the smell of my hair dashes from mountain to mountain. Don’t fucking pull me out. People pat my head with planky hands. I get it as they pull me out. But I can’t smoke! That’s me. I’m not to own. Cold or Hot – we won’t do either. Regret and relief are once again the names of paint colors.


My scarf stays in and burns for me.

My hair crisps away to red dust and I watch it clapped off in a stranger’s hands.

People scream but they don’t know what’s happening.

‘It’s a hairpiece!’
I feel my
crotch is hot
and still wet
when I’m out
of the fucking
I said words,
I meant fire.


Excerpted from What You Could Have Won by Rachel Genn. Excerpted with the permission of And Other Stories. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Genn.

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