Kristen Arnett

//Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett
Cowbirds 


Bitzi Monsoon shared her tragic backstory exclusively at dinner parties. It took approximately seventeen minutes to tell the whole thing start to finish, which covered her first two glasses of wine. While guests leaned in, smitten by the quiver of Bitzi’s frosted hair and the matching tremor in her voice, she’d have her third glass. After kind words and condolences, she drank the fourth. If the party was large enough and she told it just right, she might even get to finish the bottle.

Drink in hand, it started like this:

When Bitzi was barely three years old, her mother drifted off to sea in an inflatable raft and subsequently died from exposure. At the time, Baby Bitzi’d been sick with the flu. Her mother went out for milk, stopping at the beach to clear her head. Exhausted, she’d fallen asleep in an abandoned raft. Out on the empty beach, the fated waves came for her, dragging up the shore inch-by-inch.

Oh no, people murmured, passing around a cheese plate. I’m so sorry.

It changed my life forever. Bitzi poured wine down the side of her cup, a jeweled puddle forming on the tablecloth. Can someone please hand me a napkin?

Adrift for a week, the sun cooked her mother’s head until her brains parboiled. There was nothing in the raft. No food, no water. The gallon of milk was found on the beach, spoiled to curds in the heat. When the coast guard found her, she’d been incoherent. Her mother died in the hospital less than twenty-four hours later.

That’s so sad, people whispered, reaching for another bite of hummus. How awful for you.

It’s made me who I am. Resilient. Bitzi held out her glass. Is there any more Riesling?

A mother swallowed by the tide, unwillingly taken from her beloved child. That was the story Bitzi told people, anyway. It was much more interesting to hear about sun-cracked lips parted on Bitzi’s name; her mother’s shaking hand reaching desperately toward shore and her only child.

Do you remember her at all? people asked, shaking their heads and patting her shoulder. You were so young.

I can never forget. Bitzi poured the last few drips in her glass and reached for the bottle opener. Can we…

Let me get that for you, they said, uncorking a fresh one.

The smell of the wine was thick in the air, no room for garlic or onion.

Thanks for listening, Bitzi said, taking the bottle with her to the restroom.

 
The real story was standard issue fare: Bitzi’s mother, gone out for undisclosed reasons, left her three-year-old stranded at the next door neighbor’s apartment. Bitzi’s ancient babysitter snored on the ratty sofa cushions, blissfully unaware she’d just been gifted someone else’s child.

But for Bitzi’s logic, the raft story was true enough. “Enough” was all that really mattered when it came to party stories. After all, her mother had essentially floated off, at least from her daughter—drifting into obscurity, away from any semblance of normal parenting responsibilities. The raft event seemed as plausible as the clichéd truth. So she told the story at parties, and people liked hearing it almost as much as Bitzi liked telling it to them.

It was as clear in her head as if she’d watched it on television, and in truth, she’d seen a scene very much like it once on The L Word. If anyone ever brought that up, Bitzi shrugged it off and took another sip of her wine.

Are you going to compare a television show with my mother’s death? Her watery eyes pleaded. Are you going to do that to me, at a party? Do that to me, an orphan? Her shoulders drooped. Anyone callous enough to bring it up immediately changed the subject and brought her a fresh drink.

There was no actual proof that her mother was dead. There’d been no further communication. Radio silence from the one person who held Bitzi’s genetic code; her father already a no-show since insemination.

Bitzi conjured her mother’s death in her mind: the choppiness of the water, her fatigue after staying up all night with a sick toddler. How her mother lay her head down in the sun-warmed vinyl interior of an abandoned raft, just for a minute, before heading back to tend her sick child. It seemed perfectly plausible. It’s what Bitzi would have done.
           

Bitzi Monsoon was a has-been real estate agent, a fragrance hawker at the mall, a seller of pyramid scheme breast augmentation pills, and a cashier at a grocery store. The latter was the job she’d had the longest because there was ample opportunity to stock up on buy-one-get-one wine. She worked nights and helped stock, running the register with an off-the-cuff air that bothered her supervisors. She price checked multiple items and never looked to see if customers were switching sales stickers on any of the Thursday deals.

Sometimes Bitzi drank wine at work, pulling long swallows from screw tops she kept in her locker. When she wined, the world glowed happier and golden. That’s what she told the few coworkers who’d caught her doing it. They all loved Bitzi, so they let it go, and Bitzi drank her BOGO wine and worked the register with increasing irregularity. Items were scanned in duplicate or sometimes even triplicate, and Bitzi’s paycheck reflected these inconsistencies.

Oftentimes she got invited to dinner parties through her perfume job. She was charming with strangers, especially single women of a certain age. She had a very round face and a tiny pug nose that turned red when she drank. Her body was shaped like an overripe pear and ladies went wild for it. They pinched her cheeks and played with her little hands, holding them up and pressing them against their own to show the difference in size.

What are you going to do with these? Their long fingers curled up over her own. Baby hands, pudgy little kid fingers.

You’d be surprised. Then she’d show them what she meant, curling everything just right inside their bodies, and they never mentioned her size again.

She’d met her latest girlfriend at a free wine tasting at an ABC liquor superstore. Ginger and Bitzi both showed up early and stayed late, begging additional sips off the bored employees and sucking remnants from discarded plastic cups. They bought four bottles of the cheapest red, taking it back to Bitzi’s place. They drank two apiece, out by the algae-rimmed apartment pool, passing out in beach chairs and waking up with blood-dank stains congealed on their clothes and lips. Drips pooled onto the deck from overturned bottles like someone had been stabbed.

Ginger smiled at Bitzi with wine-darkened teeth, a smile like George Washington’s wooden grin. You wanna come with me to a party tonight?

They gorged themselves on stale oyster crackers from Bitzi’s kitchen cupboard and napped together in the dirty sheets. The sun fought hard to stream through the broken mini blinds in her bedroom window. When they woke again it was twilight, sky amethyst-hued and much more forgiving. They took a shower together and drank the last of the white wine in Bitzi’s refrigerator. Bitzi lent Ginger a sequined party dress with ruffled sleeves and she wore a crushed velvet and lace top she’d picked up at an estate sale.

At the party, Bitzi told everyone her story and loaded up on seven-layer nacho dip. It wasn’t the kind of soiree she usually liked to frequent, but she wasn’t going to be picky and Ginger was having a good time. They ran out of wine after appetizers and Bitzi resorted to swilling beer, drinking one bottle after another from the cooler
on the back patio. It was cold outside and someone had draped up Christmas lights. They were half falling down and dripping into the doorway like falling stars.

Bitzi wasn’t a beer drinker, but she had three and then four, then five bottles of beer and decided to forego dinner completely. Belly distended in her crushed velvet top, she felt disproportionately huge, as if she’d swallowed a melon. She stumbled around by the bushes bordering the fence, listening to Ginger tell her own story—one she’d get to hear repeated at parties ad nauseam: how Ginger rescued a dog hit by a car, then the dog had turned out to belong to her long lost adopted brother. Very heartwarming; emphasis on the reunion between the two, the dog a Siberian husky with a pure white coat that had streaked toward his owner like a bright comet.

There wasn’t an exit to the yard, at least not at the back gate. Bitzi hung onto the chain link and vomited up the wine and beer, plus the seven-layer dip. It got on her dress and crusted in the lace around the collar. Ginger collected her from where she kneeled on the ground, legs itchy from the crabgrass. It took three strong heaves to get her back to her feet. When they reached the patio, Bitzi tripped over a flagstone and broke one front tooth clean in half.

It took several months to get the tooth fixed. They weren’t invited back over to that house.
 

Ginger found parties through work and Bitzi found parties through work and they both attended those parties with an equal degree of drunkenness. They loved and hated each other, screaming themselves hoarse in the car on the way home from most places, drinking more at Bitzi’s apartment, and passing out half naked on the lanai or maybe in a half-filled bathtub.

Though it didn’t seem possible, Bitzi kept all three of her jobs, replenishing her stash of wine with castoffs from the back of the storage crates at the grocery store. Ginger worked at a retirement community and sometimes came home with jewelry for Bitzi—brooches shaped like pink flamingoes, or ropes of creamy pearls that swayed delicately between her breasts. Bitzi didn’t ask where the jewelry came from and Ginger didn’t offer any explanation.

The two of them made quite a pair: Bitzi with her tiny, round body and Ginger taller than most men, her hair the vibrant red of a copper penny, a color she kept stocked in the cabinet below the sink. When she colored her roots, the tap and the rugs turned a bloody mess. Usually the wine she was drinking got hair dye in it, and it was a close call whether she was willing to poison herself and drink it.

Do I remind you of your mother? Ginger asked one night after they finished a third bottle of Rosé, Bitzi’s pants around her ankles, her girlfriend’s fingers steadily creeping their way under the loose elastic of her underwear.

Her mother was an amalgam of everything and nothing, a smear of watercolor paint washed away in an ocean wave. Almost anyone could remind her of her mother, if she thought about it hard enough. Ginger’s lack of tact and her proclivity toward garlic-smeared toast, even her co-workers at the mall who were all fifteen years younger than her, faces stuck to their cellphones. Mothers abandoned, mothers exuding a rusty kind of glamour, mothers ready to take off at a moment’s notice, mothers more invested in a glass of wine than an actual conversation.

At the next evening’s party, she and Ginger rousted the wine bar and took turns eating all the olives from a cut-glass serving bowl. Fingers tart with brine, Bitzi sucked her thumb into her mouth and left it there. Ginger wore a black-beaded dress, so heavy it dragged down in the front until her nipples were nearly revealed.

My poor little lamb. Sweet, darling girl.

Pressed to Ginger’s chest, Bitzi sucked her thumb and zoned out to the fuzzy flow of conversation. Ginger popped another olive in her mouth. The juice slipped down her chin and drained into Bitzi’s hair; the feeling like an unsolvable itch. Her face stuffed into Ginger’s cleavage she prayed the room away. She was very tired and just wanted to go to sleep.

The next thing she knew, she’d fallen onto the floor.

I dropped my baby! Ginger cried, leaning over and spilling half her glass in Bitzi’s upturned face. Gagging, she rolled onto her stomach and attempted to crawl away through a sea of legs, fat and thin, pantyhosed and bare. Her girlfriend chased after her, laughing, grabbing onto her skirt and yanking her back toward the living room.

Bitzi broke free and scrambled under the dining room table. She stayed there for the rest of the night, eating crackers that fell on the floor. She let people refill her plastic cup with splashes from their own glasses.

 
It wasn’t Ginger’s idea to stage the intervention, but she didn’t do anything to stop it.

People are coming over here tomorrow, Ginger told her, dragging all of the dirty clothes into a single mound that towered as tall as the kitchen counter. You gotta clean up.

I have to go to work. I’ll clean later.

Bitzi went in late to her shift at the mall and left early for her shift at the grocery store. She was out of wine and wanted to restock. They never had get-togethers at their place; much easier to go somewhere else and partake of other people’s hospitality than to try and provide some of her own.

There was an entire pallet of Pinot Grigio left unattended in the back, nearest the emergency exit. Bitzi disabled the alarm and took close to twenty bottles without anyone noticing. When she got home, she and Ginger drank five before passing out on the floor in the hallway. Bitzi woke the next day at three in the afternoon, sweating foul odor through her dirty t-shirt and underpants.

Oh fuck, oh shit. Ginger sat up and pawed at her hair, which stuck up on one side of her head like it had been glued that way. Fuck. What time is it?

When the doorbell rang, Bitzi hadn’t even put on pants. She ran into the bedroom and threw on a knit skirt with a stain at the hem that looked suspiciously like menstrual blood. Her mouth tasted like she’d licked the floor beneath refrigerator.

She could hear the muffled sound of voices coming from the living room, but she didn’t recognize any of them. Scrubbing toothpaste along her gums with a finger, she blotted under her arms with a discarded tissue and slicked back her hair with a handful of water.

Sorry for the wait, she said, coming out of the bedroom. Would anybody like a drink?

Everyone sat around the coffee table. There were two of her co-workers at the grocery store, but the other woman was a complete stranger.

Won’t you please have a seat? The woman in her beanbag chair sat upright like she had a pole shoved into the back of her pants. She held a yellow legal pad. Your friends would like to speak with you.

Instead of sitting, Bitzi went directly into the kitchen and found Ginger drinking warm Pinot straight from the bottle.

What the hell is happening? Bitzi grabbed a paper towel and used some spit to dab the smeared mascara from under her eyes. I thought we were having a party.

It’s an intervention. Ginger wiped her lips with the back of her arm. Her hair still spiked up on the side. Your job’s gonna report you for theft if you don’t show up for rehab.

Bitzi took the bottle and drained the rest of the wine in one go. A little of it dripped from the corner of her mouth and she just left it hanging there like fermented drool.

Back in the living room, the woman in the beanbag called her name like she’d never had it in her mouth before. Bitzi took another bottle from the countertop and handed it to Ginger. Get this open. I’ll be back in ten minutes.

 
 
On the drive down the coast to the rehabilitation facility,
Bitzi stared at the passing fields and cows and wished she could sleep. It took six hours to reach the place; a cement block building set so far back from the road it could barely be seen. The dirt trail leading to it didn’t allow room for cars. Ginger dropped her there, the two of them splitting one last bottle while the sun burned the damp off the grass and the gnats buzzed around their legs.

They didn’t kiss goodbye. Ginger took the car and Bitzi took her suitcase, dragging it behind her in the dirt. All the trees were squat and leafless, bark scraping off in hunks like old scabs. The grass was patchy and full of nettles, dandelions poking up and puffing out spores.

It took thirty minutes to reach the front gate. No one was outside to greet her; there weren’t any other patients sitting around, either. Abandoned picnic tables littered the yard, topped with glass ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. Rocking chairs with splintered seats bracketed the front doors. A large black crow picked at a sandwich crust.

Bitzi searched for a sign to let her know that it was the rehab clinic and not a burned out plantation house. She couldn’t find one. Inside sat a front desk covered in brochures. A very young blonde woman sat behind the counter. Bitzi handed her the paperwork she’d brought, dug crumpled from her purse. The woman slipped a hospital bracelet over her wrist with her last name printed on it before handing her a stack of papers and turning back to her computer screen.

She hadn’t expected much. It was paid for by the state and she didn’t have the kind of funds to fly to Malibu or wherever those luxury resorts were where celebrities went and dried out. Head pounding, she fell asleep on the bare mattress in her cinderblock room, the temperature cold, but still humid and so damp that condensation beaded up on all the window panes and on the mirror over the sink.

In her first session, she declined to contribute. It was a group meeting and a bunch of them sat around in metal folding chairs with pleather seats that made the back of Bitzi’s thighs sweat. She looked longingly to a nearby card table that held canisters of black coffee, wishing there was a bottle of anything lying around, just a sip to make her head stop pounding and her stomach quit its roil and pitch.
Women, men, old, young, they all looked weathered, like they’d been left outside in the sun and their skin had stretched poorly over their limbs. Bitzi didn’t remember anything that happened at that meeting, except for the person in charge told her if she declined to speak the next session she’d be out on her ass and expected to pay the remainder of the bill herself.

Eating the food made her want to puke, but she felt like puking if she didn’t eat. Everything was cooked bland with very little seasoning. Plain chicken cutlets, Merita bread, white rice, and salads made with iceberg lettuce and possibly one cherry tomato perched on top, if she was lucky. Every time she took a bite, she imagined what wine would pair best with each ingredient: a crisp Pinot Grigio for most meals would suffice, not too sweet, and maybe an oaky Malbec for those times they gave them pot roast. She imagined sitting with the bottle in front of her, pouring out glass after glass, nearly salivating at the thought. The first sip would be like accidentally biting her tongue, so painful it was nearly pleasurable.

Sipping ice water from her Dixie cup, Bitzi lifted her pinky and swirled her glass, letting the frozen cube aerate for optimum levels of oxygenation.
 
 

It started off like always. Bitzi settled back in her metal folding chair, one leg crossed over the other, sandal dangling from the end of her foot. My mother was lost at sea, she said, smoothing out a wrinkle in her periwinkle sundress. I was barely three years old.

Did your father take care of you?

Bitzi frowned. No. An elderly neighbor took me in.

They were out of coffee. Instead they’d supplied the group with a jug of lemonade that was mostly yellow-hued water. Bitzi dropped six packets of sugar in hers; drinking it made her teeth ache and the insides of her cheeks feel tender.

The woman leading the meeting had her hair up in a very high ponytail. It was a very brassy blonde. Bitzi thought the position of the ponytail made her look like a toddler.

Do you remember anything about your mother? What she looked like? How she smelled?

There was something, a weird sense-memory hanging out in the distant horizon. I’m not sure.

Take your time. The woman turned her head and the ponytail slithered down her neck, a snake looking to bite.

A memory wiggled there, a light tapping and poking. Its insistence annoyed her; it felt remarkably like batting off a mosquito. She was lost at sea for over a week, Bitzi said, starting over. I was home sick with the flu and she went out to buy me milk.

Focus on the memory of your mother. Tell us one concrete fact, if you can think of one.

Bitzi wanted to take scissors and cut the woman’s fountain of hair, right at the base of its elastic band. Chewing her thumbnail, she closed her eyes and tried to focus on the memory, swimming away from her on a tide of fuzziness. She remembered things after her mother left, the time she spent with the old woman who could barely walk, staring at the television set in the corner. There’s nothing. It’s blank.

And then, there it was—playing at the back of her eyelids like a glowing movie screen. Her mother bending over her as she lay in bed for the night. Her face was obscured, just a blur, but her neck had dark moles clumped together like a constellation. Her collarbone was prominent; aligning to form a deep pocket in the center of her throat. There was a necklace dangling down—a long silver chain with three silver balls dangling from it. They clinked together, brushed against Bitzi’s cheek, tickling her.

I have to use the bathroom, Bitzi said, hands scrubbing at her face. Right now. It’s an emergency.
 
 

It was easy to leave. Bitzi collected her purse and walked straight out the front door. Cab companies wouldn’t go down the long drive, so she walked halfway into town, hair sweaty at her neck, the strands thin and showing greasy pale stripes of scalp below.

Her taxi got her two miles down the road, next to a house with three cars in the front yard. Take me to the nearest grocery store, she said, reapplying her lipstick in the rearview mirror.

Which one?

It doesn’t matter. Whatever’s closest.

He pulled into the parking lot of a Publix that took up a whole block. The pristine green and white of the building lifted her spirits. She paid the driver and walked in through the motion-sensored front doors, air conditioning buffeting around her like a sudden jaunt into the tundra. It felt like home to Bitzi, the smell of cut flowers, the sale produce piled up next to bags of potatoes and yellow onion, bins of cake mixes and buy-one-get-one-free General Mills cereal. She picked up a green plastic basket and wandered the aisles, casually, as if picking up items for dinner.

When she was sure no one was looking, she ducked into the back. It was warmer back there, dimmer and the smell was all cardboard and the dank plywood from stacked pallets. Bitzi set the basket down on a crate of Stouffer’s boxed bread crumbs and prowled the aisles.

They glinted at her from the left corner, in what could have been bottles of vinegar, but Bitzi knew better. On closer inspection, she found that they were stacked bottles of a nondescript red, one of the cheaper mixed vintages grocery stores always stocked. The label had a cat on it wearing dark sunglasses. She peeled back the foil and dug down into her bag for her corkscrew.

Bitzi crouched down next to the stack and braced the bottle between her f
eet, uncorking it with one smooth pull. She sat there next to the wine and took her first sip from the bottle. It was beautiful and tart and sat on her tongue like an unsung song.

After that bottle came the second, and then the third. She was working on her fourth when someone finally found her, a teenaged guy with long, dark hair and a pitiful excuse for a goatee. He said something to her that she couldn’t quite make out. She couldn’t make out much, actually, other than the blurry legs of his khakis. She lay down flat on the linoleum, next to the open bottle of wine, let her eyes slip shut.

In the light spots dotting the black, like sundown on a blood-red sea, she saw her mother’s body, bobbing in the distance. She tried to get closer, her mother’s hand in the air, waving frantically at her, but no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn’t make any progress. Exhausted, Bitzi stopped swimming. She let the waves carry her further out, further away from shore, drifting to where the sun sat crimson as an egg on the horizon. Her mother opened her arms and pulled her close to her breast.


Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She’s a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in Summer 2019. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett



























































By |2018-12-05T15:20:33+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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