first person

The Night She Almost Killed You

An excerpt from Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir, In the Dream House.

Photo: chainat prachatree/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: chainat prachatree/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: chainat prachatree/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dream House As Noir

She is not your first female crush, or your first female kiss, or even your first female lover. But she is the first woman who wants you in that way — desire tinged with obsession. She is the first woman who yokes herself to you with the label girlfriend. Who seems proud of that fact. And so when she walks into your office and tells you that this is what it’s like to date a woman, you believe her. And why wouldn’t you? You trust her, and you have no context for anything else. You have spent your whole life listening to your father talk about women’s emotions, their sensitivity. He never said it in a bad way, exactly — though the implication is always there. Suddenly you find yourself wondering if you’re in the middle of evidence that he’s right. All these years of telling him he’s full of shit, that he needs to decolonize his mind and lose the gender essentialism, and here you are learning that lesbian relationships are, somehow, different — more intense and beautiful but also more painful and volatile, because women are all of these things too. Maybe you really do believe that women are different. Maybe you owe your father an apology. Dames, right?

Dream House As Erotica

In the late spring, you surprise yourself by asking her to cover your mouth as you come. She does, pressing a firm palm against your crescendoing howl, and it’s as if the sound is being pushed back into your body so that it might suffuse your every molecule. When you are ebbing, and try to inhale but can’t, she lets go, and you can feel the lingering tingle of unlanguage.
After this, you ask her to talk to you in a low, raspy stream while she fucks you, and she does: switching effortlessly between English and French, muttering about her cock and how it’s filling you up, pushing her hand over your face and grabbing the architecture of your jaw to turn it this way and that. She shaves her cunt smooth, and it glows like the inside of a conch shell. She loves wearing a harness; you suck her off that way and she comes like it’s real, bucking and lifting off the mattress.

You don’t know what is more of a miracle: her body, or her love of your body. She haunts your erotic imagination. You are both perpetually wet. You fuck, it seems, everywhere: beds and tables and floors; over the phone. When you are physically next to each other, she loves to marvel over your differences: how her skin is pale as skim milk and yours, olive; how her nipples are pink and yours are brown. “Everything is darker on you,” she says. You would let her swallow you whole, if she could.

Dream House As House in Iowa

In late October, she visits you in Iowa City and decides to be a Dalek for Halloween. You are confused by this, profoundly, because she scorns the most earnest bits of nerd culture for reasons that are never precisely clear. She’s never seen a single episode of Doctor Who. When you tell her you’re going to be a Weeping Angel (you found the perfect nightgown in a Mennonite thrift store; a heavenly, draping Grecian shift in a barely there baby blue), you have to explain the villain to her. But she wants to be a Dalek, and she wants to make the costume herself; when she gets to town she begins to buy and assemble the pieces. She cuts up cardboard boxes, slices craft-store foam balls in half for the Dalek’s signature texture. She buys gold spray paint. Your basement fills with fumes.

The night of Halloween, your girlfriend insists on making an elaborate dinner — tuna steaks lightly seared on each side. Butternut-squash risotto. Her costume is not done — the spray paint has only just dried, the foam pieces need to be glued to the torso. When you try to gently move her along, she snaps at you, so you begin to get dressed in your own costume: the nightgown, a pair of painted wings, and white and blue makeup on your face and chest and arms. This last part takes much longer than you anticipate — is it that you underestimated the surface area of human beings in general, or your body in particular? You stand in front of the mirror swirling color onto your face as she slams things and stalks around the house, angry that her costume is not finished. Every so often, you snarl soundlessly into the mirror.

She yells questions at you every time she passes the bathroom door. Why did you insist on tuna for dinner? (You didn’t.) Why did you let her be a stupid Dalek? (You don’t answer.) What the fuck are you supposed to be again? (An ancient alien life force that disguises itself as the statue of a weeping angel. They send their victims back in time and feed on the potential energy of the life no longer lived in the present. A terrible undeath.)

“A what?”

“A statue,” you say. “Just a statue.”

On your way to the party, it is an almost perfect night: a little nippy, the air smoky and sharp, the drag and slide of autumn leaves across your path. You show up so late that it’s moved past fashionable and full swing, and the party has entered a scarier, darker place. You walk past a friend who has combined alcohol with something else, and when you say hi to her she looks at you with the blankest, most dead-eyed stare you’ve ever seen.

People keep asking who you are. You grin and place your hands in front of your eyes, the Weeping Angel’s signature pose. No one gets it. “What is she?” someone asks, pointing to your girlfriend.

“A Dalek.”

“What’s that?”

“The most evil aliens in the entire Doctor Who universe. They committed genocide against the Time Lords, and the Time Lords against them. They basically destroyed each other.”

You are definitely the most uncool person ever to attend this M.F.A. program. The woman from the Dream House, as a Dalek, can barely move through the crowd. People keep knocking into her costume. You want to tell her a joke — “Start yelling ‘Exterminate!’ People will move!” — but she wouldn’t get it. You watch her down one drink, then another.

After an hour, she walks home drunk and furious. You follow her for blocks, watching her bump along ahead of you, not certain what to do because you have the keys to your house. She has a colander on her head, like a conspiracy theorist — a true tinfoil hat. You’d been angry with her before, but there is something so tender and vulnerable about a grown woman, in a disintegrating costume of a character from a show she does not watch, stumbling back to a house in drunken anger. You think, this will be a good story, one day.

When you get to the house, she is kicking the door. The knobs of her Dalek costume are falling off into the grass. You approach her. “I have the keys,” you say, wearily. She jumps, and then begins to scream. “Why would you scare me like that? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

She is still yelling as you go inside. “Why did you want to make such a fancy dinner?” she says. “You fucked everything up, this whole night you fucked up. We just have this weekend together and you have fucked everything up.” She is still yelling as you begin the laborious process of washing your face, your skin emerging in patches through the makeup. “What the fuck are you supposed to be, anyway?” She is still yelling as you stand in the shower, the temporary hair dye swirling creamily down the drain. She is still yelling as you put on your pajamas. In bed, she says, “I want to fuck,” and you say, “Maybe tomorrow,” and turn into your pillow. Maybe next Halloween will be better.

Dream House As Inventory

She makes you tell her what is wrong with you. This is a favorite activity; even better than her telling you what is wrong with you. Years later, it’s a habit that’s hard to break.

You can be an incorrigible snob. You value intelligence and wit over other, more admirable qualities. You hate it when people say stupid things. You have an ego: You believe you are good at what you do. You’re neurotic and anxious and self-centered. You get impatient when people don’t understand things as quickly as you do. You’ve definitely done some dumb things because of horniness — embarrassing things. You’ve degraded yourself in front of more than one person. You secretly want to be a man, not because of any doubts about your gender identity, but because you want people to take you more seriously. You love squeezing zits. You’d rather have an orgasm than do most things. You’ve had sexual fantasies about the majority of your friends. You wish someone would call you a genius. You’ve cheated at board games. You once went to an emergency doctor’s appointment on Christmas Day because you thought you had herpes, but it was just a zit. As a child, you were a tattletale, and you remain an unflinching rule follower. You’re a prude about drugs. You’re a hypochondriac. The only way you can focus during prolonged meditation is thinking about an orgy. You love a good fight.

Dream House As the River Lethe

Later that fall, she asks you to join her at the Harvard-Yale football game. It is a favorite tradition of hers, and she has flown there for the occasion, but she needs to be back in Indiana earlier than expected. “If you drive there, you can bring me back,” she says. You drive from Iowa to Connecticut to meet her.

And so after a day of autumn temperatures and flask sips and people in furs and expensive bottles of Champagne rolling around on the muddy ground like Budweiser cans, you sleep hard in an uncomfortable hotel bed. The next afternoon — after delays, and brunch with her friends, and more delays — you prepare to leave. She is a reckless driver so you get behind the wheel of your car without asking.

You pull away from New Haven alternating between the radio, conversation, and silence. You scoot down through Connecticut and New York. In Pennsylvania the light drops away early, and rain glosses the pavement. Somewhere in the middle of the endless, hilly length of this state, the one you’d grown up in, she interrupts herself midsentence.

“Why won’t you let me drive?” she asks. Her voice is controlled, measured, like a dog whose tail has gone rigid; nothing is happening, but something is wrong. Dread gathers between your shoulder blades.

“I’m okay driving,” you say.

“You’re tired,” she says. “Too tired to drive.”

“I’m not,” you say, and you aren’t.

“You’re too tired, and you’re going to kill us,” she says. The timbre of her voice hasn’t changed. “You hate me. You want me to die.”

“I don’t hate you,” you say. “I don’t want you to die.”

“You hate me,” she says, her voice going up half an octave with every syllable.

“You’re going to kill us and you don’t even care, you selfish bitch.” “I —”

“You selfish bitch.” She begins to pound the dashboard. “You selfish bitch, you selfish bitch, you selfish —”

You pull off at the next exit and park at a gas station. She throws open the passenger door even before the car stops moving and stalks around the parking lot like a teenage boy who is trying to cool down before he punches a wall. You sit in the driver’s seat, watching her pace. The urge to cry is present, but far off, as if you’re high. When she starts walking back toward the car, her eyes fixed on your face, you hastily unbuckle your seat belt and run to the passenger seat. You don’t want her to leave without you, and you’re not sure she won’t.

Afterward, the drive is framed by the wet, dark mountains. You remember going through Pennsylvania around Christmas the year before and seeing 18-wheelers overturned on the side of these same roads, their engine blocks blackened by extinguished fires. And cars, too, on the highway’s shoulder, casually burning. She goes 80, 90 miles per hour, and you have to look away from the climbing needle. The shadowy shapes of deer pass in front of you through curtains of rain. I am going to die, you think. You pray for a cop to pull you over, watching the side mirror for blue and red lights that never appear. You clutch the door when she accelerates, and when the car whips weightlessly over a hill. “Stop that,” she says, and goes even faster. “Sleep,” she commands, but you cannot sleep.

Midnight comes. You enter Ohio, a state you’ve always found terrifically boring to drive across, but now your adrenaline — which you are sure will run out eventually, though it hasn’t yet — makes your hands tremble on your lap. You drive past dead animals by the dozens: raccoons blasted apart by speeding tires, deer whose muscular animal bodies are contorted like those of fallen dancers.

The rain slows, then stops, and you enter Indiana.

In the final stretch, when she exits the main highway and takes a two-lane country road south to Bloomington, the car begins to yawn to the left, kissing the double line, surpassing it, and then to the right, where the door passes within inches of a metal barrier. When you look over, the back of her skull is touching the headrest, her eyes closed. You bark her name, and the car rights itself.

“Now you’re too tired,” you say. “You’re falling asleep. Please, let me do this final stretch. We’re almost there.” You have never been so awake.
“I’m fine,” she says. “My body is my bitch. I can make it do whatever I want.”
“Please, please pull over.”

She curls her lip, but doesn’t say anything else and doesn’t stop. Every so often, the car swerves drunkenly. You pass a religious billboard that asks you if you know where you’d go after death. In full daylight, this sort of manipulative propaganda would make you roll your eyes. But now, it tugs on an old childhood fear, and you whimper and then try, too late, to swallow the sound.

When you first came to Bloomington—when you helped her find the Dream House — it was impossibly bright. It was late spring, and the trees were electric, new-growth neon green. Now the leaves burn in red and orange, and brown ones spiral away from the branches. The season is dying and you are going to die too, you are certain, this night.

The car pulls into the driveway around four in the morning and sits there in silence. You feel like you are going to throw up. The leaves drop onto the car’s roof and the wind snatches them away with a papery scrape. Finally she reaches to unbuckle her seat belt, but you are watching the lawn. Two dark shapes are crossing it, like dogs, but not. Coyotes? It would have been a lovely sight at any time, but in contrast to this night’s terrors it is so beautiful your face tingles.

“Look,” you say softly, pointing.

She starts as if you’ve struck her. Then she sees what you see. You wait for her coo, for her sweetness.

“Fuck you,” she says. She leans toward you and speaks directly into your ear. “You say ‘look’ without saying anything else, I think you’re fucking pointing out someone who’s going to fucking kill us. It’s the middle of the night. What the fuck is wrong with you?” She kicks open the car door; the coyotes bolt for the trees. You watch her stomp through the Dream House. Her silhouette is thrown up against a series of illuminated windows — kitchen, bathroom, bedroom — and then all the lights go out.

You get out of the car and sit against the side of the house, putting your winter coat on backward like a smock. The coyotes come back, after a while, trotting casually across the lawn. Deer too, and foxes, all paying you no mind, as if you are part of the scenery, as if you aren’t there at all.

You could go to bed too. Or, you could sit at the table in the kitchen and watch the scene from behind the windowpane. But that, you think, would be like putting this night in a museum — removed, too-soon forgotten. Sit with this, you think. Don’t forget this is happening. Tomorrow, you will probably push this away. But here, remember.

Your butt goes numb in the grass. The lawn is a theater of wildlife. Your little car, stalwart as any stallion, sits silent and bright in the driveway, finally cooling down after her long drive. Birds titter early-morning Morse code from the trees. A gaggle of drunk students crests the hill at the edge of the golf course and stands there looking at you — perhaps believing you to be a ghost — before shuffling down onto the street. “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love,” Allen Ginsberg wrote, “past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?”

And in the same way that the wrist rotates faster when the door latch is about to release, the predawn night speeds up a little just before the day comes. And though it would not be until the next summer solstice that you’d be free from her, though you would spend the season’s precipitous drop into darkness alongside her, on this morning, light seeps into the sky and you are present with your body and mind and you do not forget.

In the morning, the woman who made you ill with fear brews a pot of coffee and jokes with you and kisses you and sweetly scratches your scalp like nothing has happened. And, as though you’d slept, a new day begins again.

Excerpted from In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado. Published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Maria Machado.

The Night She Almost Killed You