Feral girl summer means that it’s time to get a little wild… and not think about the consequences. And no one gets that more than these women — you’ll root for them as they reclaim their voices (even if you’re cringing just a little bit). With darkly funny stories and a sharp eye for our […]
This book is full of unputdownable heartbreak and hilarity. Beagin skillfully blends complicated characters, a messy love story, and an unmatched voice into a witty and original story.
“Wild...hilarious...so good.” —Cosmopolitan, Best Books of the Year * “A laugh-out-loud bad romance for Gen Xers and an ode to misfits who just want to belong.” —Oprah Daily * “Always interesting...too fun to stop.” —Vanity Fair
“One of the funniest books of the last few years” (Los Angeles Times) about a sex therapist’s transcriptionist and her affair with one of the patients.
Greta lives with her friend Sabine in an ancient Dutch farmhouse in Hudson, New York. The house is unrenovated, uninsulated, and full of bees. Greta spends her days transcribing therapy sessions for a sex coach who calls himself Om. She becomes infatuated with his newest client, a repressed married woman she affectionately refers to as Big Swiss.
One day, Greta recognizes Big Swiss’s voice in town and they quickly become enmeshed. While Big Swiss is unaware Greta has eavesdropped on her most intimate exchanges, Greta has never been more herself with anyone. Her attraction to Big Swiss overrides her guilt, and she’ll do anything to sustain the relationship...
“A fantastic, weird-as-hell, super funny novel” (Bustle), Big Swiss is both a love story and a deft examination of infidelity, mental health, sexual stereotypes, and more—from an amazingly talented, singular voice in contemporary fiction.
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About the Author
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Chapter 1 1
Greta called her Big Swiss because she was tall and from Switzerland, and often dressed from top to toe in white, the color of surrender. Her blond hair was as fine as dandelion dander and looked like it might fly off her head in a stiff breeze. She had a gap between her two front teeth, but none of the easy charm that usually came with it, and her pale blue eyes were of the penetrating, cult-leader variety. She turned heads wherever she went, including the heads of infants and dogs. Her beauty was like Switzerland itself—stunning, but sterile—and her Teutonic stoicism made the people around her seem like emotional libertines or, to use a more psychiatric term, total fucking basket cases.
But most of this was pure speculation on Greta’s part—she’d never actually met Big Swiss in person and probably never would. Nor had she ever traveled to Switzerland. She’d seen pictures, though, and it didn’t look like a real place. Big Swiss, however, was very real. Greta knew her by her initials (FEW), her date of birth (5-23-90), her client ID (233), and her voice, which was low and loud and a little sad. Perhaps because Big Swiss was so deadpan, and because Greta couldn’t see her face, her voice conjured a bunch of random crap. Such as a dog’s nipples. Such as wet pine needles. Such as Greta herself, hiding in a closet, surrounded by mink coats. Otherwise, it had a distinct tactile quality Greta approved of. It was a voice you could snag your sweater on, or perhaps chip one of your teeth, but it was also sweet enough to suck on, to sleep with in your mouth.
Currently, Big Swiss was talking about her aura, which would’ve been unbearable in any other voice. Apparently, according to Big Swiss, auras varied not only in color but also in size, and hers was “the size of a barge.” It entered rooms before she did and you either got out of the way or were mowed down—your choice. Big Swiss suffered, as well. Her aura prevented her from spending more than twenty minutes in a room with low ceilings, and she could never in a million years live in a basement. She felt uncomfortable with anything near her face, including other people’s faces. She slept without a pillow. She disliked umbrellas. On a separate note, she couldn’t eat anything unless it was drowning in hot sauce, or some other intense condiment, such as Gentleman’s Relish, which contained anchovy paste. She put salt on everything, even oranges. She had trouble being in her body in general, which was why she liked to be roughed up by the elements and was always either sunburned, windblown, or damp from the rain.
“Your aura is giving me a head injury,” Greta would’ve said, had they been in the same room. “I’m clinging to the side of the barge, bleeding from the scalp.”
But Greta and Big Swiss were not in the same room, or even the same building. Greta was miles away, sitting at a desk in her own house, wearing only headphones, fingerless gloves, a kimono, and legwarmers. Her job was to transcribe this disembodied voice, to tap out its exact words, along with those of the person Big Swiss was talking to, a sex and relationship coach who called himself, without a hint of irony, Om. His real (and perfectly good) name was Bruce, and Big Swiss was one of his many clients. Nearly everyone in Hudson, New York, where Greta lived, had spilled their guts on this man’s couch. He was writing a book, of course, and had hired Greta to transcribe his sessions. So far, she’d produced perhaps three dozen transcripts, for which he paid her twenty-five dollars an hour.
At Greta’s previous job, she’d sorted and counted pills, and then she put the pills in bottles, and when the patient picked up the Rx, they talked to Greta about their turds. “I’m a pharm tech,” Greta would say gently. “Not a nurse.” They’d switch gears. Before she could stop them, something like this came out: “My husband beat me for thirty years. I’ve had multiple concussions, and I don’t have children to take care of me. Could you fill this prescription for Soma right now and give me a discount?” In cases like these, Greta had often turned to the pharmacist, a bitter alcoholic named Hopper. “I’m a pharm tech, not a shrink,” she’d whisper. “And this lady’s Rx has zero refills. You deal with her.” Hopper was relatively young (fifty-two), suffered from hypertension and kidney problems, and had chemical compounds tattooed on his forearms. Not the usual corny crap, such as the chemical structure of love, and not dopamine or serotonin, either. He preferred drug molecule tattoos—caffeine, nicotine, THC—and was completely useless if all three weren’t in his bloodstream at the same time, plus alcohol.
Greta liked knowing people’s secrets. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was being glared at by dope fiends under fluorescent lights while “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” or “Touch Me in the Morning” played over the speakers. The pharmacy was hot, bright, and stagelike, and Greta found herself exaggerating her body language and facial expressions, as if acting in a silent film. At the end of the day, the dope fiends just wanted their dope, and Greta just wanted to sit down. Her legs and feet throbbed. For the first time in her life, she’d taken to wearing pantyhose, and not just one pair but two, along with black compression socks. It wasn’t a great look, but she felt the need to be held. Squeezed.
And then one day a man handed her a prescription for oxy 30s and a pair of trousers, demanding she fill the Rx and mend his pants. “I’m a pharm tech, not a tailor,” she’d explained, “and this scrip is fake, sir.” He’d given her a disgusted look and pulled out a gun. It was Christmas Eve. Hopper immediately forked over 260 oxy 80s and the dope fiend skipped away, laughing. He died of an overdose two days later. A week after that, Hopper committed suicide in the pharmacy, after hours. It made the evening news and all the papers.
And Greta? Unflappable, as always, so long as her socks were tight, tight, tight. When she removed the socks: remote sadness, nothing serious. This upset people (her fiancé), who expected visible signs of distress (inconsolable sobbing), especially given her mother’s suicide when Greta was thirteen, after which Greta had lived with various aunts in California, Arizona, and eventually New Hampshire, where she went to high school. Her fiancé kept patting her down, checking her pockets for pills, worried she was planning to take her own life. “You’re watching too much TV,” Greta had said. “That’s not how this works. It’s not one-for-one.” Besides, Greta’s attempts were like root canals—painful, humbling, and almost always followed by a lengthy grace period. Her current grace period was good for another five years.
Although she had not been the one to find her mother’s body, she’d discovered Hopper’s. He’d shot himself in the heart, not the head, but he’d missed and had died of a heart attack. Her mother had shot herself in the head, not the heart, and had not missed. They’d both left notes, as well as what Greta considered to be unintentional postscripts. Hopper’s PS was that he’d died on his side next to Dyazide, which, if he’d used it as directed, might have prevented his death. Her mother’s PS was a long strand of hair attached to a small piece of scalp, a postscript that had tormented Greta for years.
“Aren’t you just a tiny bit triggered?” her fiancé asked, bewildered.
“My triggers are covered in wet sand,” she’d said, “because my head is a giant cement mixer.”
“So, you do have feelings,” her fiancé said. “They’re just buried. In cement. Maybe it’s time you start breaking up the cement.”
“With what, a jackhammer?”
“How about a psychologist?”
So, Greta had taken another stab at therapy. After hearing her whole story, which had taken ten weeks to tell, the shrink diagnosed her with emotional detachment disorder, which seemed like a stretch to Greta, who preferred to think of it as “poise” on a bad day, “grace” on a good one, and, when she was feeling full of herself, “serenity.” He’d made several over-the-top recommendations: hot yoga, hypnosis, primal screaming, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acupuncture, and swing-dancing lessons. He also recommended she quit caffeine and nicotine.
Instead, Greta quit therapy. Then she quit her job, ended her relationship, moved across the country, and switched careers. Years ago, she’d worked for a “document preparation company.” The job had entailed transcribing audio for high-tech businesses, scientists doing qualitative research, journalists, professors, and psychologists. She’d held on to the equipment all these years because she’d genuinely enjoyed the eavesdropping aspect, the isolation of working from home, the not speaking for many hours at a time. She’d been a listener all her life and tended to surround herself with people in love with their own voices. It didn’t bother her that the work required very little skill and could be easily performed by robots or software. When she’d landed in Hudson, she emailed the six shrinks in town and offered her transcription services. Only Om responded.
Now secrets were fed directly into her ears, without any of the piped-in music or body pain. In fact, Greta barely moved these days. Only her fingers moved, and not very fast. Although by no means an excellent typist, she was semidiscreet, and because Hudson was so one-horse and gossipy, discretion was everything. She’d signed what looked like a pretty official confidentiality agreement, so she was forbidden to talk shit about Om’s clients. Not that she wanted to—she’d always been less of a shit-talker and more of a shit-thinker, and she barely left the house. She typically waited until midafternoon to get started and then worked until bedtime. They talked, she typed, nighty-night.
So far, Big Swiss was unlike Om’s other clients. She lacked their habit of tacking a question mark to the end of every sentence, even when asking an actual question. She never exclaimed. When she sneezed, she said “achoo” in the same way she said “hello” and “thank you.” She spoke slowly, enunciating every word, at the exact speed Greta typed, so it felt as though they were performing a piece of music together, something improvy and out-there, at a concert with no audience. Greta rarely had to rewind for another listen, or give up altogether and type [INDISCERNIBLE], which she hated doing. There had been some [SIGHING], [SNEEZING], and [THROAT-CLEARING] on the part of Big Swiss, but Om didn’t want any of that in the transcripts. Nor was Greta allowed to include a [WEIGHTY SILENCE] or any of the many [PAUSES], and no [WHIMPERING]. For some reason, Om’s style sheet permitted [WHISTLING], [SINGING], and [APPLAUSE], even though no one did those things in therapy, along with [LAUGHING] and [CRYING]. Oh, and [FIRE-BREATHING], which he sometimes did with clients who were open to kundalini, one of his passions.
Om’s first session with a client tended to run at least five to seven minutes longer than usual, but his first session with Big Swiss was a full fifteen minutes shorter. This was how Greta knew Big Swiss was beautiful—Om had forgotten to hit the record button. Either that, or he’d erased the first fifteen minutes, which wasn’t like him. Also, his voice had dropped an octave, and he kept fidgeting with his pen.
- OM: While you were talking about your aura, I thought I detected a faint accent. Where are you from originally?
- FEW: Where do you imagine I’m from?
- OM: Hang on, let me think. You’re from... the Midwest somewhere. Not Illinois. Not Ohio. No, not Nebraska—
- FEW: Don’t hurt yourself. I’ll just tell you. I was born in—
- OM: Wait, I got it. Michigan!
- FEW: No.
- OM: You’re originally from Wisconsin.
- FEW: Wrong.
- OM: Minnesota?
- FEW: I’m from S—
- OM: South Dakota.
- FEW: Switzerland.
- OM: That’s why you’re so tall and blond!
- FEW: Switzerland. Not Sweden.
- OM: It’s funny, I grew up listening to ABBA on cassette—
- FEW: Swiss, I repeat. Not Swedish. Swiss. Like the cheese.
- OM: Aren’t there a lot of tall, blue-eyed blondes in Switzerland?
- FEW: There are many. But most Swiss people are brunettes of average height, and my eyes are gray.
- OM: So they are. Remind me what else Switzerland is famous for.
- FEW: Cheese, chocolate. Suicide, I guess.
- OM: Is everyone killing themselves in Switzerland?
- FEW: Well, it’s legal. Suicide tourism is big there right now.
- OM: Are you, or have you ever been, suicidal?
- FEW: No.
- OM: How long have you lived in Hudson?
- FEW: I don’t live in Hudson. I live on the other side of the river. I moved to the US for college.
- OM: Your voice is very unusual—and interesting—and I’m wondering, do you sing? Are you a singer?
- FEW: I’m told my voice is like a blade. When I pick out pastries at the bakery, it sounds like I’m ordering someone’s execution.
- OM: Says who?
- FEW: Various people. My mother says my voice loosens the teeth in her head.
- OM: Wow. What a curious thing to tell your daughter.
- FEW: She’s been saying that to me for years.
- OM: I’m wondering if you see your trauma as being part of your... aura.
- FEW: No.
- OM: The word “aura” is present in the word “trauma,” I just realized.
- FEW: If anything, something in my aura may have caused the trauma. Or in any case, my aura made the trauma worse.
“What trauma?” Greta said out loud.
- OM: Don’t you think you might be uncomfortable with people near your face because of what happened?
“What?” Greta said.
- FEW: You want me to say yes. You seem to want cause and effect.
- OM: Well, it is a real thing. You must have been affected in some way. Can we talk a little bit about how your trauma has affected your relationships?
- FEW: Can we stop using the word “trauma”?
- OM: Why?
- FEW: I don’t use what happened to me as an excuse.
- OM: An excuse for what?
- FEW: Laziness or inertia. I don’t use it to explain my own rage or aggression. I’m not attached to my suffering. I’m not attached to what happened to me. I don’t believe it explains everything about me, because I haven’t made it part of my identity. I’m a worker, not a wallower. I would never call myself a “survivor.” I’m just—I’m not one of these trauma people.
- OM: What’s a trauma person?
- FEW: Someone who can’t stop saying the word “trauma.” Trauma people are almost as unbearable to me as Trump people. If you try suggesting that they let go of their suffering, their victimhood, they act retraumatized. It’s like, yes, what happened to you is shitty, I’m not denying that, but why do you keep rolling around in your own shit? If they stopped doing that for two seconds and got over themselves, even a little, they might actually become who they were meant to be.
“Whoa,” Greta said. “Hello.”
- OM: So, suppose someone has been gang-raped at gunpoint and can’t seem to pull themselves together, stop drinking, return to work, or find meaning in their lives, would you tell them to just “get over themselves”?
- FEW: Well, there is a hierarchy, isn’t there?
- OM: I don’t think so.
- FEW: If you didn’t think there was, you wouldn’t have used that example. You would have said, “Suppose someone has been molested by a neighbor” or “neglected by their mother” or “bullied all their lives.” But there is a hierarchy. Trauma people don’t like to hear that. To them, all trauma matters.
- OM: Where would you place your trauma on the hierarchy?
- FEW: All I’m saying is that trauma doesn’t get you a lifelong get-out-of-jail-free card. It also doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom, or the right to pontificate, which I realize I’m doing right now.
- OM: Well. I’m willing to concede that life handles some people more roughly than it does others, and that you do have a choice in how you deal with it. You can decide what you want to do with it, but not until after you address it, which—I’m sorry to say—involves talking about it, for as long as it takes, identifying fears and triggers—
- FEW: Triggers. God. This is why I’m not crazy about therapy. I really hate the language.
- OM: Do you have nightmares?
- FEW: What?
- OM: Do you have night terrors or trouble sleeping?
- FEW: I have bad dreams occasionally, like any other human being.
- OM: Do you consider yourself an addict?
- FEW: No.
- OM: Do you drink or use drugs?
- FEW: I’m not an addict, Om, and it’s not because I’m in denial. Nice try.
- OM: If “trauma” isn’t a word you use, what do you call what happened to you?
- FEW: I call it what it is—a beating.
“Yikes,” Greta said.
- OM: You were assaulted.
- FEW: I took a beating, yes.
- OM: How has the... beating affected your relationships?
- FEW: It hasn’t. I’m here because I don’t have orgasms.
“Oh?” Greta said.
- OM: Did that start after the beating, or before?
- FEW: I’ve never had an orgasm in my life, even by myself.
“Come again?” Greta said.
- FEW: Here’s the funny part: I’m twenty-eight.
- OM: Age is just a number.
- FEW: I’m married. I’ve been married for six years.
- OM: Marriage doesn’t necessarily guarantee satisfying—
- FEW: I’m also a gynecologist.
“Is this a joke?” Greta said.
- OM: Are you married to a man?
- FEW: Yes.
- OM: Does he know you’re here?
- FEW: This was his idea.
- OM: Would you describe your marriage as low-sex or sexless?
- FEW: I would describe it as mostly hand jobs and blow jobs.
- OM: How does that feel to you?
- FEW: It feels like a chore, but I also feel better afterward. It’s sort of like walking the dog and drinking wheatgrass at the same time.
- OM: You have a dog?
“You have a dog?” Greta repeated. “Really, Om?”
Greta glanced at her own dog, Piñon, a black-and-white Jack Russell. Piñon was licking the door—again. She paused the audio, noted the time, and removed her headphones. She was due for a break anyway.
“Piñon,” Greta said. “No licking, goddammit.”
He ignored her. His eyelids fluttered. He seemed to be in a trance. Greta threw a slipper at him, but it fell short.
The door, along with all the walls in Greta’s room, as well as the ceiling, was covered in many layers of ancient lead paint. The paint had been chipping for a hundred years. Whenever a truck rattled by outside, flecks of paint would fall onto the floor or the furniture or in many cases Greta’s pillow as she lay sleeping. The cheerful blue and yellow flecks showed up easily in her long hair and on her bright white sheets. Sometimes she wondered if she was suffering from lead poisoning, hence her decreased IQ and increasingly dumb dreams, but supposedly the paint would have to be falling directly into her mouth, which it wasn’t. It was falling directly into Piñon’s mouth, however, and he only weighed nineteen pounds.
“Show me your tongue,” said Greta.
He paused, tongue still on the door, and looked the other way. He liked to pretend not to know if she was speaking to him or some other dog, but he was the only dog here. He thought he could wear the door down by licking it to death, which was what he did to tennis balls, licking the woolly nap for forty-five minutes before skinning it with his nubby jujube teeth and then licking the hollow rubber core until all the air went out of it and the ball was officially dead. Rats were easier and less time-consuming than tennis balls. He’d killed over a dozen so far—big, fat country rats—along with mice, woodchucks, baby rabbits.
She let him out of the house and listened for her other housemates. Only a faint buzzing came from the basement. She descended the stairs carefully in her socks, watching where she stepped. Her housemates had started dying soon after she moved in. Sometimes they were only half-dead and twitching on the floor, and she’d step on them by accident, which was of course upsetting. She’d never thought of them as individuals, but now that they were dying, she made sure to look at each one. Such hairy bodies! Such oddly shaped eyes! Sometimes they died in pairs and seemed to be holding hands. She found them everywhere, on windowsills and countertops, in cups and drawers. Last week she’d found one in her hairbrush.
Her housemates were sixty thousand honeybees. And one human named Sabine, who was still alive and smoking a cigarette. No, she wasn’t French. She loved smoking, however, and butter. She also knew a few things about wine, had superior taste in art and bed linens, worked as little as possible, and would snort a line of cocaine or pop a few pills if you put them in front of her but stayed away from hallucinogens. An empty nester in her midfifties, Sabine was newly divorced and single. Rather than join a dating site, she’d purchased the ancient Dutch farmhouse in which she and Greta now lived. The house sat on twelve acres and was surrounded by fruit and dairy farms. Although it felt like the edge of nowhere, they were only a one-cigarette drive from town.
Greta had heard the house described as “the Fight Club house with comfy furniture,” but it was a century and a half older and way more beautiful. Dutch, not Victorian. Built by wealthy fur traders in 1737, the house had been uninhabited for over a hundred years. No, it wasn’t haunted. Its only amenities, however, were electricity and running water, and it was completely uninsulated.
From a distance, the brick exterior looked sturdy and no-nonsense. Inside, however, it was all-nonsense—albeit beautiful nonsense: crumbling plaster walls; layers of peeling wallpaper you could count like the rings on a tree; large windows with cracked or missing panes; wide Dutch doors with original hardware; wide pine plank flooring with gaps between the boards, which made for easy eavesdropping; and an enormous fireplace in the kitchen with an iron crane for hearth cooking. Sabine lived on the top floor, Greta lived on the first floor in what used to be the living room, and the bees lived in the kitchen, which was in the basement.
Greta suspected the fur traders had owned slaves, and that the slaves had lived in the little room off the kitchen, where Sabine now grew marijuana and where Greta sometimes double-checked for ghosts. She never saw any, but perhaps Piñon did? The black fur on his face had turned a stark and sudden white about a week after they moved in. Shock, presumably, from seeing the souls of dead slaves, or (more likely) finding himself in the Hudson Valley after living in California all his life. Many more of Greta’s hairs had turned white, as well, and Sabine had a white streak on the left side of her head, which she claimed had been given to her by the devil.
“When?” asked Greta. “Recently?”
“At birth, ding-dong,” Sabine said.
Otherwise, Sabine’s hair was the color of dry tobacco and dense enough to hide things. Such as a pair of earrings. Such as a spare key. Sabine often used her hair rather than a handbag to shoplift, and occasionally a lost or stolen item suddenly resurfaced. The other day, it had been a pair of reading glasses she’d stolen from CVS, along with a woven bracelet from god knows where. She never got caught, however, and Greta suspected it was because she had the scrubbed good looks and general air of unkemptness that people associated with old money, and in fact Sabine had grown up wealthy before her father lost everything in the stock market. She’d been something of a spiv ever since.
Personality-wise, she reminded Greta of one of those exotic vegetables she was drawn to at the farmer’s market but didn’t know how to cook. Kohlrabi, maybe, or a Jerusalem artichoke. Not very approachable. Not sweet or overly familiar. Not easily boiled down or buttered up. Not corn on the cob. Greta felt an instant kinship with Sabine, since she, too, was kohlrabi.
Bees weren’t bothered by kohlrabi, apparently. Neither of them had been stung, not even once. If a bee landed on Greta’s arm or face, she calmly brushed it off and carried on with whatever she was doing. If she happened to startle a few bees while they were performing some task, she simply ducked or walked away. They never came after her.
Now she was sweeping up the dead bees around Sabine’s feet. She swept gently, as they tended to stick to the broom.
“You want the vacuum?” said Sabine.
“Too noisy,” Greta said.
Sabine sat next to the open fireplace, which was big enough to fit a bathtub or a medium-size coffin, and the hive was directly above her head. The hive was massive, estimated to be over thirty years old, and nestled between two exposed joists in the ceiling. Roughly seven feet long and sixteen inches wide, it snaked along the length of the joists in a wavy fashion.
Sabine had discovered the hive shortly after she bought the house. She’d heard buzzing in the ceiling and so she’d knocked it down with a sledgehammer. There she discovered the hive at the height of production. Rather than remove it like a normal person and perhaps transfer it outdoors, Sabine asked a local beekeeper to build an enclosure for it. She liked having bees in the kitchen. The beekeeper, a Christian back-to-the-land type named Gideon, built a hatch, a simple screened-in wooden box with a Plexiglas bottom, which he installed in the ceiling. If you stood directly underneath the hatch and looked up, you could plainly see the hive and all its activity. You could also reach up and open the hatch to expose the hive, but they never did that. The hatch kept the bees out of their hair, as it were, but there were always about a dozen flying around Greta as she made coffee in the mornings.
“These bees seem Japanesey,” said Greta. “There’s something kamikaze about the way they’re crashing into shit. Seems like they might be committing suicide.”
“They’re deeply altruistic,” Sabine said.
“I wonder if that’s because all bees are siblings,” said Greta.
“My siblings are dicks,” Sabine said. “I’d never die for them.”
Another bee threw itself against the window, knocking itself unconscious. In a minute or so, it would start buzzing again but would remain on the floor, kicking its legs.
“It’s autumn,” Sabine said. “Leaves fall. Maybe bees fall, too.”
“Or they’re sweating to death,” Greta said, and emptied the dustpan into the huge fire. She wondered if the still-living bees could smell the burning bodies of their lost siblings.
“Or they’re just reducing their staff to a skeleton crew,” Sabine said. “For the upcoming winter. For the sake of efficiency.”
Greta listened to the fire crackle. The bees used to be louder than the fire. She used to be able to hear them buzzing in her stupid dreams, because the hive was essentially underneath her bed, one floor up.
“Do you happen to know any Swiss people?” Greta asked. “On the other side of the river?”
“Five,” Sabine said. “Two of them are artists, two of them are assholes, and the other works in the trades. They’re really boring and really intense at the same time, which is a weird combination when you think about it.”
“Is one of the assholes a gynecologist?”
Sabine tossed her cigarette into the fire. “No, why?”
“New patient,” Greta said.
“Another sex addict?”
“This one’s never had an orgasm,” Greta said.
“Wow,” said Sabine.
Greta was about to say more but changed her mind. She wanted Big Swiss all to herself. But Sabine looked wan and in need of nourishment.
“Something terrible happened to this Swiss person,” Greta said.
A little color returned to Sabine’s cheeks. Her only sustenance lately was gossip, especially if it involved money and real estate, and most of Om’s clients had both. Sabine lit another cigarette.
“It’s only been hinted at,” Greta said. “But it seems this person took a terrible beating—”
“In the real estate market?”
“Physically,” Greta said.
Sabine’s face went back to gray. She only seemed to eat actual food on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and Greta had never seen her drink a glass of water. Granted, their water came from an ancient well and smelled like toe jam.
“Eat one of those donuts I bought at the gas station,” Greta said.
“I’d rather eat ice,” said Sabine.
Anorexics eat ice, Greta thought. They love ice, can’t get enough of it. In fact, they actually crave ice, don’t they? Because it contains iron?
“Does ice have iron in it?” Greta asked.
“No,” said Sabine. “But a lot of anemics chew ice. I forget why. I think it makes them feel... alive, or alert, or something.”
Greta suspected Sabine was anorexic—both traditionally and sexually. She hadn’t been laid since her divorce. Romantic relationships seemed to utterly repulse her, and sex wasn’t worth the trouble of making small talk. She’d lost twenty pounds in three months, though that was just a guess, as the only articles of clothing Sabine wore were a pair of off-white overalls and an oversize moth-eaten sweater. Anorexia was about control, Greta remembered having read somewhere, and Sabine lived in chaos. Perhaps exercising control over what she allowed into her body made her life feel less crazy.
“What day is it?”
“Monday,” said Greta.
“I should score us an eighteen-dollar steak,” Sabine said.
Mondays were meat. Tuesdays, cheese. Wednesdays, yogurt, milk, and occasional flowers. Thursdays, fruits or veggies. Weekends were nothing—too many tourists, too many witnesses. But Sabine only stole from super-rich farmers who gouged their customers and were dumb enough to rely on a cash box—the so-called honor system—and she didn’t really care who knew about it.
“Are you anorexic?” asked Greta. “You can tell me.”
“I’m too old for that shit,” said Sabine. “I probably have lung cancer. Or some other cancer. I just hope it kills me quickly.”
“If it doesn’t, I’ll put a pillow over your head while you’re sleeping,” Greta said. “And then sit on it or whatever.”
“You’re a good friend,” said Sabine seriously.
“I don’t think it’s cancer,” Greta said. “I think it’s Lyme.”
“If I hear that word one more time...,” said Sabine.
They didn’t have Lyme disease in California, so when Greta first started transcribing for Om, she’d assumed everyone was talking about limes. Were these limes from outer space? They seemed to have abducted everyone in town and taken over their brains.
Greta was itching to get back to Big Swiss. In the recent past, if Greta didn’t excuse herself right around now, Sabine would talk both of Greta’s arms off, and then both of her legs, until Greta was twitching on the floor like one of the bees. Sometimes it was necessary to back out of the room slowly while Sabine was still talking, and then do an about-face and run to her room. But Sabine’s gabbing had tapered off once the bees started dropping dead.
“Do me a favor,” Greta said. “Choke down one of those donuts.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Sabine.
GRETA STEPPED OUTSIDE TO FETCH PIÑON, as well as three logs from the woodpile. The only source of heat in her room was a woodstove with a busted damper. The damper was stuck and would not close. Yes, she’d tried banging it with a hammer. One, two, three times. The flue remained wide open. Consequently, the fire in her room was never mellow and romantic, but rather an angry, raging inferno. The inferno demanded to be fed every three hours, and if Greta didn’t obey, it burned out completely and she had to start from scratch. This made sleeping through the night impossible. It was also dangerous—a chimney fire seemed imminent. Luckily, their only neighbor was a fire station.
Greta wrestled the logs into the stove and brushed the dirt off her filthy kimono. Piñon jumped onto the bed with his muddy paws. Last week she’d pushed her desk toward the middle of the room, which was a little warmer. Any day now, Sabine would bring down a box of heavy drapes from the attic and nail them over all the windows, and Greta would work in near darkness. Such was the hardscrabble life in the Dutch House in the Big Woods. She liked to think of herself as a Laura Ingalls Wilder type, i.e., feisty and resourceful, but, if anything, she was more like the blind sister.
She donned her headphones and tapped the foot pedal.
- OM: You have a dog?
- FEW: Yes. His name is Silas, and he’s terrifying.
- OM: You’re frightened of your own dog?
- FEW: Me? No. He’s terrifying to other dogs—and their owners.
- OM: What do you love about him?
- FEW: My dog? He likes to hold hands. He dislikes kissing.
- OM: Is that also true of you?
- FEW: Yes.
There had been a silence before she’d said yes, a silence that seemed important to include. Greta hit the pause button and jotted down “ask Om about pauses.” Maybe he wanted to reconsider their inclusion in the transcripts. She was supposed to meet with him in exactly an hour, and he liked it when she showed up with notes.
- OM: Let’s return to the reason you’re here.
- FEW: I want to have children, and I want to have an orgasm during conception. This isn’t scientific, obviously, but I feel that having an orgasm will not only help me get pregnant, it will be good for the baby.
- OM: And you.
- FEW: What?
- OM: It would be good for you, too.
- FEW: Oh. Right.
- OM: So far, I’m getting the sense that you know your body on an intellectual level, and probably on a medical level, but not an emotional one. I’m getting the impression that you’re living life entirely in your head. You seem disconnected from your body.
- FEW: Are you referring to my blue fingers? I have poor circulation.
- OM: I’m referring to what you’ve told me about your aura, and to the way you carry yourself.
- FEW: How do I carry myself?
- OM: A little stiffly, honestly.
- FEW: Well, my body shows physiological signs of arousal all day and night, with little to no stimulation. In fact, my underwear is damp right now and all I’ve been doing is sitting. It’s as if I have no control, as if I’m foaming at the mouth.
Greta’s ears felt suddenly warm and rigid. She paused the audio, slipped off her headphones, and tugged on her lobes. If her ears had erections, she could only imagine what was happening in Om’s pants.
- OM: Arousal and desire are two different things. Personally, I have the opposite problem. I desire sex but sometimes have trouble becoming aroused.
Okay, so perhaps nothing was happening in Om’s pants. Greta pictured his flaccid penis and shuddered.
- OM: When you’re aroused, do you want to have sex?
- FEW: Only if I’m drunk.
- OM: Are you drunk right now?
- FEW: It’s nine fifty a.m.
- OM: I know, I was kidding. Do you masturbate on a regular basis?
- FEW: I find it boring, and nothing happens.
- OM: Masturbation is a skill. It’s totally learnable, like cooking. Have you ever made risotto?
- FEW: I’m terrible in the kitchen.
- OM: I wonder if you would allow me to share my own journey with you.
- FEW: Please don’t.
- OM: May I ask why not?
- FEW: Aren’t therapists not supposed to talk about themselves?
- OM: A little self-disclosure builds rapport, no? I often use my personal journey to treat clients. I’ve gathered many tools in my journey, tools I’m willing to—
- FEW: Can you not use the word “journey” ever again? It makes my skin crawl. I’m not crazy about “tools,” either.
- OM: My point is, I can help you integrate your intellect with your sexual—
- FEW: What are you proposing exactly?
- OM: A variety of exercises involving breath, touch, and mindfulness.
- FEW: Touch?
- OM: There’s nothing to fear, I promise. I’ll never ask you to do anything you’re not totally comfortable with. We all have a sexual narrative or anecdote that intrigues us, or that we identify with on some level. Perhaps I can help you discover a narrative that speaks to you. Are you open to that?
- FEW: I guess.
- OM: I also want to address what happened to you. The beating, as you call it.
- FEW: To be honest, I almost never think about it.
- OM: Hmm. I wonder why it was the first thing you mentioned?
- FEW: I wanted to get it out of the way. As a piece of background information. Also, don’t read into this too much, but the guy is getting out of prison next month.
- OM: How long has he been in prison?
- FEW: Eight years.
- OM: Wow. Hold on, I think this is a good time to stop—
“No, no, no—” Greta said.
- [END OF RECORDING]
“Dammit,” Greta said.
OM’S RELATIONSHIP-COACHING STYLE seemed reminiscent of getting hit on at a bar. Not by a yoga teacher, as his name would suggest, but by an unneutered therapy animal. He was short, furry, and attentive, with the most soulful brown eyes Greta had seen in years, eyes that put you instantly at ease, even as he was humping your leg. Greta had experienced this firsthand during their initial interview, which had taken place at an abandoned-church-turned-expensive-cocktail-bar on the edge of town. Om had been wearing a felt fedora that afternoon, along with black eyeliner, a tasteful white linen tunic, and tight denim shorts. A women’s vintage handbag dangled from his arm, and he’d painted his short fingernails a color Greta recognized as Lincoln Park After Dark. He was somewhere in his forties and he seemed unable to stop staring at her face. At forty-five, Greta was aware of the facts, and the fact was that her attractiveness, especially in broad daylight, tended to have a delayed effect: it hit you anywhere from two weeks to two months after you met her, and sometimes not until after you touched her, and then it stayed with you for years—or so she told herself—but Om had immediately asked, “You used to model, correct?”
Greta had laughed and devoured the sixteen-dollar hot dog he’d ordered for her.
“Every bite of food in this town costs at least four bucks,” she said. “Have you noticed?”
“Your cheekbones remind me of the fins on an old Cadillac,” he said.
“I’m forty-five,” Greta said.
“By ‘old’ I meant ‘classic,’” he said quickly.
“LOL,” Greta said.
He gave her a sorrowful look. “You’re uncomfortable with compliments about your appearance.”
“Me and everyone else,” Greta said.
“Actually, people around here love to be told they’re beautiful.”
Greta thought of that dog she often saw at the dog park, a dopey white boxer who compulsively licked the mouths of other dogs. His name was Popsicle. He followed the other dogs around, lapping at their open mouths with his long pink tongue while they tried to get away from him. Sometimes he got bitten in the face by Greta’s dog, but not even that stopped him.
“That’s Japanese denim, right?” Om asked, gazing at Greta’s pant leg.
“I believe it’s just regular denim,” she said.
Disappointment. She remembered that this was an interview for a job she needed very much, and that her days of sixteen-dollar hot dogs were nearly over, along with everything else. She glanced at Om’s lower half.
“Cute socks,” she said.
“Why, thank you kindly,” he said. “So. You’ve done this before, right?”
“Transcribing,” he said.
“Oh yeah, of course. I type seventy words per minute and I have a really good ear.”
“Me too,” Om said. “I have perfect pitch, in fact, which is why I play angklung in a gamelan ensemble. What about you?”
“Bass,” Greta said.
Forty words per minute, 10 percent hearing loss in her right ear, never played bass in her life. Although she was newly single and happier than she’d been in years, a small part of her was still ready to die, and still enjoyed telling lies.
“Okay, so, this might be a strange question, but... what’s your relationship to work?”
“How do you mean?”
“Do you like it?” Om asked.
“Do I like work?” Greta said.
“It’s just—I feel like I have to ask, because a lot of people in this town—I won’t name names, because there’s too many—seem to be allergic to work, and will do literally anything to get out of it, including falling off a roof.”
“My last name is Work,” Greta said.
“My name,” Greta said, “is Greta Work.”
An incomplete sentence. A curse, a command. In the rare case she introduced herself with her full name, she felt like she was interrupting herself. If there were an S at the end, maybe she’d have felt like a whole person.
“What is that—German?”
“It’s English. It derives from the ancient word ‘geweorc,’ which means ‘work that’s done or made,’ which may explain why, in my dreams, I’m often toiling away in a factory.”
“Cool,” Om said. “Are you comfortable signing a confidentiality agreement?”
“Of course,” Greta lied.
She loathed official documents of any kind, which was why she hadn’t filed a tax return in six years and didn’t have health insurance. Her own birth certificate made her sick to her stomach. She also hesitated to sign anything, even credit card slips, because she’d never liked her signature. She’d tried changing it over the years, but it was like trying to change her voice. On the other hand, Hudson was overflowing with people who’d successfully reinvented themselves. I was a corporate lawyer in the city for years, and then I moved to Hudson and became a flower farmer/doll maker/antiques dealer/chef/arborist/alcoholic, and I never looked back. “I moved to Hudson to reinvent my handwriting,” she imagined telling someone over drinks. “It’s been an incredible journey.”
Om had gone on, unnecessarily, to explain that everyone knew everything about everyone in Hudson, even people they’d never actually seen or met, because all people talked about were other people and their problems.
“A wise man once said that Hudson is where the horny go to die,” Om said. “And I’m the only sex therapist in town.” He smiled patiently, waiting for her to connect the dots. “You’ll be transcribing some colorful stories. You may be tempted to share these stories after a couple cocktails, if you know what I mean.”
In Greta’s experience, everyone did not know everything. It was worse than that—everyone knew only one or two extremely intimate and shameful things, and the thing Greta knew about Om was that his orgasms were loud and high-pitched. “He sounds like a woman when he busts,” Greta overheard a guy say about him once. This had not been “after a couple cocktails,” but rather first thing in the morning, in line at one of the eight new bakeries in town. The guy, visibly stoned, said he’d heard it from the woman he’d taken home the previous evening, who’d heard it from her housemate, who used to date Om’s housemate back when he had housemates, before he’d reinvented himself as a therapist.
“Seems to me Hudson is where the deeply deranged go to die,” Greta said. “It’s as if my abnormal psych textbook from college grew legs and learned to walk. I mean, have you ever seen so many narcissists gathered in one place? Be honest.”
“I’ve lived in Los Angeles,” Om said.
“Me too,” Greta said.
“Hollywood?” Om asked.
“Inglewood,” Greta said.
“You know, I’ve seen a rise in borderline personalities in Hudson,” he said. “It seems they’re very attracted to narcissists. How’d you wind up in Hudson?”
“Sabine,” Greta said. “Do you know her?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Yeah, well, we live together,” Greta said. “But... we’re not lovers.”
Greta always added that last part as a joke, since it was patently obvious Sabine didn’t have a gay bone in her body. But no one ever laughed, so maybe it wasn’t that obvious. Or maybe it just wasn’t funny. She wondered how many of Om’s bones were gay. One or two, she decided.
“Didn’t Sabine move out of town?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes, but we’re only a one-cigarette drive away,” Greta said, pointing vaguely behind her. “That way.”
“What kind of cigarette?” Om said.
“American Spirit,” Greta said.
“Nice,” he said. “Can you spare one?”
They stepped outside. He held the cigarette between his middle and ring fingers. More than a couple bones, she thought.
“How’d you meet Sabine?” he asked.
“She picked me up hitchhiking,” Greta said.
“Martha’s Vineyard,” Greta said. “It was more like a kidnapping. I was trying to get some pizza, but she took me to a party on the other side of the island, said Quaaludes would be there. ‘Is that a band?’ I remember asking. I was only eighteen. Her eyes misted over, as if we were about to encounter a herd of unicorns. ‘It’s the best drug ever made,’ she said. I asked if she’d tried MDMA. ‘Yuck,’ she said. ‘I’m not into hugs and backrubs.’ Anyway, the party turned out to be in this hippie whorehouse out in the dunes. We took the Quaaludes, laughed for six hours, been friends ever since.”
After their Quaalude excursion, Greta ran into Sabine every couple of years, always when she least expected it—in line for an ATM in San Francisco, in the bathroom at Grand Central Terminal, at an Ethiopian restaurant in LA, walking down the street in New Orleans, and most recently, in a parking lot at Huntington Beach, where Sabine had kidnapped Greta (and Piñon) for a second time. She’d been touring the country in a Mercedes Sprinter van, visiting her kids, and convinced Greta, who’d just quit her job, to join her for a few days. It had been Greta’s first taste of freedom in a dozen years. She’d essentially never gotten out of the van.
Om said he rarely left Hudson except to travel to India, to a specific place Greta always immediately forgot the instant she heard its name, but it was the oldest and most beautiful city on earth, a place where nothing was hidden, where literally everything was out in the open—birth, disease, death, lots and lots of garbage, etc.—and you had no choice but to observe life in its culmination. Om traveled to this city once or twice a year—to reaffirm his Om-ness, Greta assumed—but then he said, “Plus I have a guru who tugs on my nadi.”
Greta coughed. “Pardon?”
“Every winter, my nadi becomes corroded—”
“What’s your naughty?”
“My pulse,” Om said. “N-A-D-I. Nadis are channels in our bodies that provide energy to our cells, channels that become blocked—”
“May I ask what your real name is?” Greta asked. “Or is that rude?”
“You can ask me anything. My birth name is Bruce.”
“You changed your name to Om... in India.”
“Twenty years ago.”
“‘Om’ is a little... on-the-nose,” Greta said, and smiled. “Don’t you think?”
“Look around,” Om said. “Everything in Hudson is a little on-the-nose.”