July 14: “Heartbreaker” by Maryse Meijer

Hello, Story366! A sad day today, this 14th of July, as lost a family member, Peter Rabbit, aka Bunny, aka Fat Kitty. We rescued Peter Rabbit from my younger son’s daycare this past holiday season when they were looking for someone to watch over him for the four-week break. We took him home and fell in love with him and were leery about returning him to the daycare, where he spent every night by himself, 6 p.m. until 7 a.m., every weekend and holiday, too. We gave him a good home, interacted with him, made him a member of the family. About a month ago, he suffered an injury, getting a claw caught on his cage and ripping it out of his foot, which caused him a lot of pain and an infection. We took him to the vet to find out he was an old bunny with arthritis in his legs, and that on top of the infected foo, the arthritis t brought about a steady decline. We spent some special time with him today, cuddling up, feeding him some of his favorite things—I held a banana as he munched it out of my hand—and we said our good-byes. Karen took him to the vet, hopeful that maybe there was something they could do, but I think we knew it was his time. He was unable to use any of his legs properly at this point and was basically immobile, not to mention in pain. RIP, Peter. May there be bananas aplenty wherever you are now.

I didn’t exactly pick the most uplifting of books to follow that experience. Today’s mail brought me Maryse Meijer’s brand-new collection, Heartbreaker: Stories, from FSG. I was so drawn by the cover, the blurbs, what I’d heard about it before, I took it with me on errands and snuck in a few stories here and there. Heartbreaker lives up to its name, the stories in this book tragic, violent, distressing, and dihearteningly personal. I love these stories, though, love Meijer’s concise, stark style, and even though it’s not unicorns and rainbows, I found deep satisfaction in reading from this collection.

All of the stories I read are, as mentioned, pretty depressing. I opened up the book randomly and found “Jailbait,” about a couple whose sex life is enhanced every time the male half is incarcerated—something about him under arrest drives his partner to insatiable horniness. This is the most uplifting story of the three I read, and it includes tell of prison rape, disrespect, and back-stabbing. Next I read the title story, which I’ll get to in a sec, and then moved on to “Love, Lucy,” which is from the POV of a feral little girl who’s adopted by an old man and lives with him, destroys his shit, and kills whatever she can get her teeth around. These stories don’t apologize for any path they take us down, nor do they mince words about how fucked up they can get.  The stories are gritty, honest, and written with short, clear, and very descriptive sentences. I ate them up, but need a Tums to help them settle.

“Heartbreaker” is about a teenaged girl named Natalie who is bored and devious and ambitious, not a great combo for a kid who has no boundaries, no curfew, no real parental presence. The story starts with Natalie bored at a party, where she sleeps with a random boy she meets at the keg. After, she heads home and runs into Chris, whom everyone calls “Frog,” a kid from her neighborhood in the special ed track at her high school. Chris is spastic and gullible, always riding (and falling off) his skateboard, and Natalie, still bored, decides to toy around with Frog, paying him special attention.

At first, this attention comes in the form of simple interaction, her being nice to him, but like any predator—and that’s what Natalie is—she acts this way to lure him toward her, get him thinking about her when she’s not around. Then she starts moving toward whatever it is she’s trying to achieve with Chris, first giving him a porno mag, then inviting him over to her bedroom to peruse it with her on her bed. Meijer does a nice job here with dialogue, implying a lot of what they say to each other, especially avoiding Frog, as she probably wanted no part in trying to get too close to him, trying to construct whatever is going on in his head. It’s a tricky scene, troubled and troublesome Natalie in seducing this poor boy, thumbing through its pages with him like she’s reading him Goodnight, Moon. It’s tense and awful and got me squirming a bit, as where this encounter goes could be nowhere good.

And to nowhere good it goes. Natalie flat-out tries to have sex with Frog, stripping off her clothes, getting him out of his clothes as well, or at least almost so. It’s a tense, tense moment, one populated by well drawn characters, and I was seriously nervous while reading the story: What would happen next, this experienced young woman trying to seduce the most vulnerable person she’s ever met? What could go wrong?

I won’t reveal anything more, as that would ruin the story. I will say that it reminds me a bit of the Christina Ricci movie Pumpkin, where Ricci’s college cheerleader and sorority enthusiast who falls for the kid she has to hug at the Special Olympics, a kid with the same type of handicaps as Frog. It’s a creepy-ass movie, as “Heartbreaker” is a creepy-ass short story. It’s at least tragic, what brings someone like Natalie to get this bored, to make these kinds of choices.

Maryse Miller’s Heartbreaker is full of stories that pull no punches, leave nothing sacred. A rough day for the family here at Story366 headquarters, but I’m still glad to read these tales, wallowed in their worlds’ awfulness, for in their awfulness is their greatness. What a great new collection, what a debut.