By Amy Feltman
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 5, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
For fans of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell and The Futures by Anna Pitoniak, a soul-piercing debut that explores the intertwining of past and present, queerness, and coming of age in uncertain times.
Willa’s darkness enters Hesper’s light late one night in Brooklyn. Theirs is a whirlwind romance until Willa starts to know Hesper too well, to crawl into her hidden spaces, and Hesper shuts her out. She runs, following her fractured family back to her grandfather’s hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia, looking for the origin story that he is no longer able to tell. But once in Tbilisi, cracks appear in her grandfather’s history-and a massive flood is heading toward Georgia, threatening any hope for repair.
Meanwhile, heartbroken Willa is so desperate to leave New York that she joins a group trip for Jewish twentysomethings to visit Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland, hoping to override her emotional state. When it proves to be more fraught than home, she must come to terms with her past-the ancestral past, her romantic past, and the past that can lead her forward.
Told from alternating perspectives, and ending in the shadow of Trump’s presidency, WILLA & HESPER is a deeply moving, cerebral, and timely debut
It happened quickly. It happened, to me, quickly. Then it stopped. Tree-scales scraped barkily against the cotton of my T-shirt. The boy was walking away. My earbuds had fallen out of my ears, dangling over my collarbones. The boy’s figure disappeared, duskily camouflaging into the New Jersey night. Past the green-glowing empanada store; in front of the synagogue where I’d been bat mitzvahed. He’s gone, I told myself, but even my own diction seemed hazy, baffling. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know if gone was a permanent state of being. I didn’t remember how to propel myself forward. I watched my legs move as though they were someone else’s legs and I was a camera, capturing it all. Spidery voices slid into the world from the earbuds. My body felt thick, full of cement.
What had happened? Ten minutes earlier, I was getting off the bus. I was visiting home for the weekend from graduate school. Bergen County skies, glazed pink with pollution, leered over my head. I had a backpack filled with toiletries, books. My sweater was missing a button. I’d walked up this hill innumerable times before. I was only one and a half blocks from home, I thought, though it was less my home now.
There had been nights when I’d been afraid, but tonight wasn’t one of those.
Now I was late for dinner. My mother would already be annoyed, and then: how would I say it?
Why couldn’t it have happened somewhere else? I thought, glancing back at the temple. My temple. The place where I felt most myself, sequestered by neatly clipped yarmulkes and swathes of lace on pious heads. The place where I’d won the Purim carnival in my shiny blue dress with the lace collar. Singing, unfettered, the mellifluous bounce of Hebrew prayers. My parents sat obediently twice a year, measuring the number of pages of the service between two fingers in the prayer book. But I loved it; the standing and sitting, bent knees during the aleinu. It was the only place that I ever sang. That was what I wanted to think of, here. Not the boy. His hands on me.
I tried to talk to God. I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
In the space where I usually felt an undulating presence, there was nothing. “I’m sorry,” I said again.
The street was hushed. Shelled insects scurried into the porous earth. The sky, crepuscular and unending. I heard squirrels rattling in the branches overhead, the far-off sweeping whirr of an airplane. I could see no one—no silhouette of a boy sneaking into the living room to play video games, no khaki-adorned dad rushing to the market to retrieve a forgotten head of lettuce. Suburban streets, devoid of eyes, slouching back to status quo. Nothing ever happens here, I’d complained as a teenager, and I had believed it.
* * *
AT MY PARENTS’ HOUSE, I was greeted by the stale smell of lasagna, old furniture polish from a can. Mom ate blueberries from a plastic container at their kitchen table, carefully laid upon a square of a paper towel so that no drops of condensation would stain the wood. “You’re late,” she said. She popped another blueberry onto her tongue. “You were supposed to help me cook.”
“I can help now.”
“I thought you’d be here every weekend,” she said. “I thought that was one of the benefits of going to Columbia. Within commuting distance.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Every day I do this by myself,” she said. “Every single day.” She didn’t notice my hands, which were trembling conspicuously. I knitted them behind my back. I imagined what her shocked expression would look like if I said it. I imagined her, staring into that container of blueberries and not believing me. Things like that don’t happen here, she might say. That’s why we raised you in the suburbs, close enough to the city to get there in twenty minutes without traffic but without the risk of someone grabbing you in the—
And then, what would we do with Dad? We couldn’t bring him to the police station. The chairs would hurt his back.
Why would the police care? They wouldn’t. They’d say, Why did you wear that sweater? Don’t you know what a missing button looks like? Why were you walking alone at night, with your earphones in? Don’t you know that makes you a target? They’d think, You’re the one with a body that someone can’t help but
Twice I refused my mother’s offer of blueberries. I opened a plastic bag full of frozen, fetus-y shrimp and filled a pot with water. I squinted into the liquid, waiting for the beads to flicker to the surface. My heart felt pinpricked.
I kept my arms away from my sides, maintaining space.
I remembered that Jews weren’t supposed to eat shellfish because they’re the smallest animals that feel pain. My mother didn’t follow those rules, and discouraged me from doing so, too. “We’re not those kind of Jews,” she said. “You don’t need to be a fanatic about it.” The water boiled, beads of heat and movement. The clumps of crystallized shrimp bodies transformed from gray to pink, unfurling.
“I’m positively engorged,” my mother declared, popping another blueberry in her mouth.
“After dinner, I’m going to head back to the city,” I said.
“I already washed the towels,” she said.
“My time is valuable, too, you know. I can’t just decide to jettison back to fun whenever I feel sick of being here, Willa.”
If my mother asked why I was leaving instead of staying for the whole weekend, as originally planned, I didn’t know if I would lie. I have a lot of homework, I could say. Or.
But she did not ask. A sliver of fruitskin swam between her front teeth as she complained about the obligations of caring for Willa’s dad, for the house, the new roof, the gutters leaking, the clanging radiator in Willa’s bedroom. She narrated it to me as if Willa were not me, but a stranger who had been dropped in the middle of her life. So let me use an old towel, I thought, but I couldn’t say it.
“Don’t forget to say hello to your father,” Mom said, standing to take over dinner preparations. But I knew, first, I would have to retreat to my childhood bedroom to “gather my feelings,” as I’d been trained to do. In the dark, cluttered room, a litany of glow-in-the-dark stars watched me from their position on the ceiling. I told myself: Try to conjure all the joy you’ve ever felt. I remembered being hoisted onto my father’s shoulders, the warm sunshine on my four-year-old face. A gorgeous, light blue sweater I’d been given as a birthday gift that was the softest material I’d ever felt. The satisfying crunch of salted sidewalks against the soles of my shoes. Then nothing remained, all the joy slid away; only the sensation of a mortar and pestle, mashing my feelings into a paste. I could do this; I could hide it.
In the living room, the coffee table had carefully laid out piles of medical bills and appeals, like place settings for imaginary visitors. Dad had his face nestled in a warm, well-knit afghan. He was lying across the length of the sofa, wiry ankles propped up against the adjacent wall. My father was perpetually in a state of deterioration from a serious back injury. He’d been in an accident, and instead of recovering, he didn’t. I hadn’t known that this happened to real people, only characters in medical dramas, but here we were. It had been years. His disks were unsteady, a doctor explained, wiggling his fingers to illustrate the undulating spinal fluid. It seemed like my father’s vertebrae were performing a well-coordinated baroque dance. The only upside was that medical emergencies had left him sweet, gracious. Once he’d been the sort of man to hurl an empty soda can out of a moving car rather than deposit it in a recycling bin. No longer.
“Your shrimp smell delicious, Turnip,” he said to me, and I kissed his air-conditioned cheek.
I could never tell him about the boy. I knew, if I did, my father would not understand. His eyes were gooey with morphine. He wouldn’t be able to call me Turnip anymore. This, more than anything besides the lasting and impervious smell of my childhood home, felt like the truth.
At the dinner table, I used a fork to dig into the shrimp’s body. My mother talked about going on a juice cleanse. “I suppose it’s not exactly juice,” she admitted. “Rice bran, rice syrup, and encapsulated bark enzymes.
“I’m going to be as thin as I was when I was your age,” she vowed. “Not a pound heavier.” I watched her, evaluating my body, calculating how many more pounds I weighed than she ever had. I thought of the willowy, obedient daughter that she’d envisioned for herself. A person who washed towels and counted calories by her side. A person who craved, above all else, a husband to cherish and please. But I wanted cake, and literary acclaim, and women. Well, just one woman, really.
“That sounds extreme,” I said.
At first, he’d covered my mouth. His skin was salted, firm. The hands of a child straining to catch a tadpole. He pushed me against the birch tree, his arm a bar over my neck. Then he’d moved his hand. I hadn’t made any noise. How had he known that I would stay quiet? I wondered as Mom listed all of the parts of her body she wished she could replace. The loose skin where her neck met her chest.
Why hadn’t he been afraid?
* * *
LATER, ON THE WAY back to New York, I felt the knot inside my chest loosening. I imagined the tiny, L-shaped tool I’d used to put a bookcase together, bringing me back to equilibrium. One turn counterclockwise at the pho place in Ridgefield Park where I’d once gotten a parking ticket; another as the bus made the wide turn at the Dairy King. A gummy, kalamata-olive taste lingered in my mouth. By the time I arrived at the congested, twinkling Port Authority, I no longer had to concentrate on the rhythm of my breathing.
I thought about texting Chloe. Now that we were roommates, I told her basically everything out of a combination of intimacy and convenience. But she was visiting Graham this weekend at Yale, and I imagined texting her in the middle of their blissful, long-distance-relationship reunion that I’d been…what? Fondled. Traumatized. She would call me right away, want to talk to me about it until I cried and she cried from me crying, and then I’d abruptly hang up and she would worriedly text me to see whether I wanted her to come home and I didn’t. The imagined conversation exhausted me. I wanted to concentrate on a destination. One foot, then the other.
“Last stop,” the bus driver announced. I descended: steps from the bus, steps down to the subway entrance. I gave the pruneish, slippered homeless woman in the concrete tunnel between Times Square and Eighth Avenue an extra fifty cents, pressing each coin into her hand fervently. We made it, I told the woman with my facial expression. We’re alive. Everything remains possible. On the subway, I watched a young girl in a soccer uniform dangle her infant brother’s head back and forth against the sticky floor—a game. He’s a broom! He is invincible! Overhead, an ad for an introductory philosophy course taunted: WHO DO YOU WISH TO BE?
* * *
I TOOK THE N train to Union Square. I took the L train to Williamsburg. I got off and onto the L train three times. Where was I going? It didn’t matter. Williamsburg was where your night ended; that much I’d learned from graduate school so far. I felt the bruises forming on my breasts, my rib cage, the pillowy insides of my thighs. Or could I be imagining the bruises forming? It happened. Something happened to me.
* * *
ON THE TRAIN, THREE girls my age were going to a party together, each holding a tin-foiled platter of brownies on their American-Appareled laps. Ankle boots and ill-fitting patterned pants. Chin-length haircuts and mascara-coated eyelashes. Entranced, I followed them off the train. I followed them into a diner and waited by the gumball machine in the carpeted space between front and middle doors. The gumballs were stationary, covered in dust. For a moment I regretted giving my extra quarters to the homeless woman. I wanted to hold a dusty gumball. Suddenly I had never wanted anything so much in my life, to feel the grime against my skin.
“Excuse me?” a stranger prompted me. Let’s move this along, the stranger’s face expressed. She did not have time for yearning. This was a business; it was inappropriate. I mumbled an apology, allowed myself to be swept into the restaurant. Tall columns of yellow-lit cheesecake slices stood on a mirror-covered table. A cash register trilled excitedly; a waitress astutely gathered that I was not with the impatient stranger. “One?” she said, nodding, a thick plastic menu in hand, escorting me to the nearest, saddest table, only a few feet from the bar.
I thought of my mother’s guilt-ridden expression. Engorged, she’d said, leering at the blueberry pile as though it were impious. Maybe what she meant was, If you were smaller, no one would notice you. If you had worked harder to be contained—birdish and compact, like the girls on the train. I knew that I took up too much space in the world. Not only with my body—I saw bodies all the time that were more expansive. But my feelings spilled outward, puddling like oil underneath a car. “It’s like you’re emotionally immune deficient,” I’d been told by an ex-best friend in high school. “When I’m around you, everything hurts a little bit extra.”
When the waitress returned, cloaked in tobacco-scent, I ordered French fries and a slice of peach pie. I felt, instantly, that I’d missed something. An important element of the order. Regret rose steamily inside of me. I stared at the advertisements on the paper place mat cloaked over the table: confident dermatologists, beekeepers harvesting their own honey. The waitress rushed past me with a plate of accordioned French fries; they were not for me.
Across the room, I caught the eye of someone I recognized. Hesper, with her luminous strawberry blond hair pulled back from her small, rounded face. Beautiful Hesper, from workshop; we had participated in sanguine exchanges about the mild weather and Karen Russell. I could recite each of those exchanges.
She was wearing a puzzling dress. The top, knitted ivory fabric looped in a kind of cape, swirled over her shoulders and breasts, but with a strip of translucent fabric below her ribs before expanding outward into a swingy A-line. Is that all one dress, or has she layered different thrift-store purchases on top of each other? I wondered. What does her body even look like?
Hesper met my eyes and smiled primly. Waved.
I’m sorry, I told Hesper’s face. I was bleary-eyed and staring at a place mat. I hadn’t even given myself the luxury of pretending to read an engrossing book, or scrolling through a Facebook feed of Friday night updates. I wished I were holding the dusty gumball. I wished I could put my hands somewhere that the boy had not touched.
Hesper approached me at the saddest table. Her hands were splattered with freckles, and she smiled crookedly, baring an overbite. I waited for Hesper to ask what I was doing here, in the strange not-quite-Greenpoint pocket of Williamsburg, by myself on Friday night. Instead, Hesper sat and rested her elbows on the table and said, “My sister’s cat just had kittens,” and I swelled with gratitude for this easy, though foundationless, familiarity.
“Are they okay?” I asked. I thought of the kittens being pummeled by a stream of relentless water in a large, metallic sink. Were they drowning or just taking a very forceful bath?
“What do you mean?” Hesper asked. “They’re adorable.”
“Right,” I rushed. “Of course.”
Hesper’s head drooped into her open hand. “We found someone to take each one. Poor Tibby. She’ll be so sad to lose her kittens. But you can’t have that many cats in one apartment.”
“Tibby? Like tibia?”
“Tbilisi. Georgia. It’s where our grandfather is from.” Hesper smiled. “Do you usually name your pets after bones?”
“I’ve never had a pet.”
The waitress returned with the fries and pie, each thickly jarred peach slice spectacularly glittering. I thought I should say something about Eastern Europe that didn’t involve Stalin. Probably anything Soviet was a touchy subject. Hesper ordered chicken noodle soup and a Bloody Mary.
“The president of Estonia went to my high school,” I said.
“Estonians are dour,” Hesper said. “And taciturn. Wooden, really.”
“I’ve never met one,” I replied. “Is that true?”
“I think that was Calvin Coolidge, actually. Oh, no. Willa?” Hesper said, leaning forward across the table. “Can I tell you something?”
She doesn’t believe me about the Estonian president, I thought. It was true. I wouldn’t have said it otherwise. My eyes felt liquidy, about to spill into something incriminating and vulnerable. “What?”
“I’m substantially high right now. Everything feels so…easy.”
A bashful blush crept over Hesper’s cheeks. I instantly felt as light and feathery as if I were the Molly-afflicted; I could say anything I liked to Hesper, the guarantee that it would be misty and surreal tomorrow. The bright white lights of the diner suddenly seemed illuminating, cradling boldness. Hesper’s gold necklaces jangled as she reached for the fork, capturing a peach slice with a jubilant stab.
“Did you know Hemingway’s estate is crawling with polydactyl kittens?” I offered. A French fry burned against the roof of my mouth. Hesper organized her hair into a donut-like bun.
“I hate that story we read for workshop,” Hesper said. “Masculinity 101.”
“They have thumbs,” I said. “You can hold their little paws.”
Hesper slurped her soup ravenously.
“I heard Liam tearing Isabel’s story to shreds in the lab,” I said.
“It deserved to be shredded,” Hesper said, between noodles. “She used the word electric eight times. I counted. Not everything is electric, Bells. Some things are just lackluster.”
As Hesper continued, I felt electrically toward her—the brushing of our bare knees underneath the small table, the warm orb of wanting Hesper’s puffed, silken lips on mine. Hesper moved the peach pie plate closer to her soup and fragrantly tomato-ish drink. “Sorry to colonize your dessert,” she offered.
I made a robotic gesture that I hoped conveyed generosity. We insulted the work of our classmates: Liam’s blatant misogyny; Elisabeth’s overuse of quilting imagery. Hesper’s laugh was low and melodious.
Our knees knocked fortuitously. I couldn’t seem to find a way to broach my gayness in the conversation. If gay was even what I was. Queer felt too political; omission and long hair rendered me a straight person. I wanted to avoid the confessional, desperate-for-support tone that so many of these conversations led toward. If only I had a prop. The gumball—I could roll the gumball at Hesper across the table, skirting around our plates of food and perspiring glasses, and if Hesper rolled it back, I would know.
Did you bring her here? I thought. I waited for God, for a squeeze in my chest to let me know someone was there. If not answering, then not answering for a reason. But I felt no squeeze. Hesper was looking at me.
“Where is the rest of your family from?” I asked, leaning forward to retrieve the pie. Hesper hollowed out most of the peach slices, leaving a buttery crust-foundation slumping in the center of a white porcelain plate.
“Pale-skinned places. Ireland, England. Wales.” When Hesper said Wales, she made an ocean-wave motion with her non-soup hand and then laughed, embarrassed. Oh, no, I thought, falling a little bit in love. “What about you?”
I mused. I hadn’t properly thought about a response to this question. “I come exclusively from people that don’t exist anymore. I mean—places,” I clarified quickly, as Hesper emitted her alto-toned, harmonious laugh. “Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union.”
“People that don’t exist anymore,” Hesper repeated. “I only sleep with ghosts!”
I looked into her lap. I thought of the boy’s thumb, digging.
“Ghostgasm,” Hesper continued, buoyant. “Do you want to leave?”
I nodded encouragingly.
“Let’s go right now,” Hesper said brightly, uncrinkling two twenty-dollar bills from underneath the cape’s folds. “Don’t forget the crust,” Hesper advised, so I broke the remains of the pie into transportable pieces.
* * *
ON THE TRAIN, I refrained from asking about logistical considerations. I wanted to appear nonchalant, unconcerned about getting eight hours of sleep and whether it made more sense to transfer to an express train. Hesper leaned close to me on the tiny cold seats, her slender body a force field of expectation and knobby joints. I tried not to think of that word electricity—the sharp hook of the c, submerged between two prominent i’s. Hesper entwined her fingers with the strands of my hair, seemingly reveling in the intricacies of texture. I ballooned with self-consciousness, thinking of adjectives I could use for my curls: fluffy, diffuse. Triangular. My hair had become awfully triangular.
“Your hair is so frothy,” Hesper said finally. “Like a latte’s milk hat.”
I thought: she has to be gay. She has to at least be in the vicinity of gayness.
“Do you want the crust scraps?” I asked. Hesper wrangled her fingers away from my scalp and scooped the bits of pie from my careful grasp. When our skin touched, my entire body liquefied, a sloshing outline of a girl, waiting to condense back into herself. Then I did. Then I did, and was looking at Hesper, who was feeling the tulle of her skirt with incredible focus and precision. Like someone on drugs, I remembered. I kept forgetting. I, too, was partially submerged in a place that was not-here.
“You’re sunburned,” Hesper observed, pushing her thumb into my arm.
“It’s my natural color,” I said apologetically. “Not the sun’s fault.”
I watched the mark of Hesper’s touch disappear and felt the salty taste in my mouth return. A tiny cactus was growing at the base of my throat, itching up to my esophagus. I thought of bruises. I thought of Hesper marveling at the pattern of my bruises in the serene yellow light of a reading lamp.
“Do you want to feel my dress?”
I let Hesper guide my hand, warmly, across the fabric pooling over her knees, her hidden thighs and hip flexors and motion-related muscles. The ivory skirt was scratchy, protrusive tulle. The sensation of ballet practice, secondhand prom attire. I wondered if I should move my hand away from Hesper’s knees but lingered there. These were her knees. My fingertip slipped comfortably, serendipitously, into a small cave between Hesper’s kneecap and bone.
Everything feels so easy.
“We fit,” Hesper said, mesmerized, and I tried to keep my balance with my other hand, knuckles whitening as I pulled hard on the bottom of the subway seat. It was a miniature miracle. A polyp, if polyps could be engorged with romantic potential. I wouldn’t ruin our puzzle-piece quality because of the train’s jostling as we pulled into and from each station. I would conquer the subway’s unsteadiness; I would preserve this, like a fly cushioned beneath layers of amber.
* * *
WE TRANSFERRED TO A different, ricketier train that seemed swollen with light. Hesper’s skirt shimmered, fish scales of ivory and metallic sheen. Each station we passed looked deserted. Hesper and I sat on a glossy bench, several seats distance from a mangy, pallid man with a large plastic bag balanced between his oversized feet. In slow motion, he folded in half, retrieving a stuffed banana wearing a pair of sunglasses made of black felt. The banana had a large, menacing grin, each tooth elongated into the shape of a carrot.
The man began to laugh.
I covered my mouth. I didn’t want him to see my lips.
Hesper’s expression shifted from perplexed to amused. The other passengers, too, seemed to regard the laughing man with a distanced sense of entertainment. I arched my neck back to examine what else may have been in the plastic bag. An ear of corn? A handgun, glinting with possibility? If it were a gun, I knew, it would have to go off. But I couldn’t distinguish any of the objects; just dark, untenable shapes. The man wrapped his stolid arm around the banana, as though it were a child needing support for its journey.
- On Sale
- Feb 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing