The following excerpt from Don’t You Know I Love You by Laura Bogart is excerpted with permission from Dzanc Books.
Don’t You Know I Love You – excerpt
Corvin’s Coffee didn’t lay her off outright; they cut her hours until she was as good as gone. One four-hour shift a week barely covered the cost of a metro fare to and from the hospital, where an orthopedist in their community clinic did her follow-up x-ray and told her she could bank on eight weeks in the cast. He offered to write her a prescription for an in-class note-taker or a week off work. “There’s got to be some perks to this, right?”
“Not for us poors,” Angelina said. “But thank you for trying a joke. I feel moderately more human now.”
He did, at least, give her a script for a refill of Oxycodone. Those little white pills were moth wings that ferried her to sleep every night. Without them, she’d be up past sunrise, cutting and pasting her resume into online applications (after she’d already uploaded said resume) and watching YouTube clips of medical procedures: fibroid removals and congested sinus cavities pushed open with balloons inflated at the ends of catheters. The videos had an oddly cathartic allure—terrible violence done to the body to do the body good. She Googled “ways to remove a cast yourself” in between applying for mindless printmaking gigs she was overqualified for and secretarial jobs she knew she’d eventually get fired from, a kindly but exasperated boss explaining that she “just wasn’t a people person.”
There was no hope for unemployment since, technically, she still had a job. By the end of her first week, she decided to apply for food stamps. Armed with copies of her birth certificate, pay stubs, and tax records, she arrived at the social services office with its dingy industrial exterior, hard rows of soiled brick and smeared metal beams. The offices inside were a honeycomb of acid-washed walls and fluorescent lights, chairs with battered, stained (with God knows what) fabric, and tiny desks strewn with manila files. The air smelled of coffee breath and lemon Lysol wipes.
The woman who reviewed her materials asked how she’d broken her wrist. She should’ve said she’d tripped on a curb or fallen while walking a friend’s dog. Hindsight came quickly, in the amount of time it took her to walk to the bathroom, close herself in a stall, and punch her cast against the door as hard as she could. (Why waste her good hand when she craved a sound loud enough to swallow her anger.) “So, you’ll be getting some kind of settlement, then?” the woman asked, folding her manicured hands over Angelina’s paperwork.
Once those French-tipped fingers steepled over her W-9s, Angelina knew she was done for. Without public assistance or a job, she had no choice but to move back into her parents’ house.
She got back to her apartment as sunset flushed the sky. As she drove past, she saw a gaggle of teenagers, maybe five of them, standing in a circle near the dumpster. She rode slowly, rolled her window down as one of the taller boys chucked something into the center of the circle. From the back, he might’ve been playing dice or even jacks (if people actually played jacks), but Angelina knew better: His movements were crisp and assured in the way that cruelty without consequence can be. The smiles of the boys around him confirmed it before she heard the dog cry.
She slammed the rental car into park. As she stepped out of the car, she slid the handles of her cloth grocery bag over her cast. The bag was filled with cheap eats, cans of soup and beans and two glass bottles of ginger beer. It dangled loosely off her left arm, so she could grab anything she might need to throw or to break off into a weapon. Anything hard and heavy. Anything that could draw blood.
Her stomach flattened into an iron sheet. She slammed her cast down on the trunk of the car, screamed, “Stop it!” with a force that pulped her throat. The boys turned to her with their faces ranging from what the fuck to who is this bitch to oh shit. They were so young. Their features were blunt and unformed, waiting for the fingers of some unseen sculptor to pinch and smooth them sharper and more distinct. Some of the boys still had rocks in their hands. Angelina looked at the dog, crouched on her belly, her eyes dazed with pain.
“Big men, picking on an innocent animal.”
The dog sensed her cue. She was a big dog, a black and tan Shepherd mix with sweet dark eyes and a graying muzzle. As she heaved herself up, her hip cracked. Angelina didn’t look down at her; she needed to keep her eyes on the tallest boy, the ringleader. The dog leaned against Angelina’s legs, pressed her tender hip into the heat of Angelina’s bare skin.
“Why don’t you throw your little dick pebbles at someone who can fight back?”
The tall boy smirked, and she felt the press of male bodies surrounding her. A cold flicker of fear cut through her, but that flicker was swallowed by the hiss that sizzled at the back of her skull, made her body thrum. The tallest boy called her a fat cunt under his breath. She pulled a bottle of ginger beer from the bag and broke it against the trunk of her car.
This sound startled the boys into backing up. Except for the tall boy, he had to hang tough. He might have been an older teen, all Adam’s apple and blond fuzzy scruff patching his chin. She watched his eyes move from the jagged edges of the bottle to the liquid dripping down the trunk, and then back to the bottle. His nostrils flared slightly. Still, his posture, the general feel of his body, seemed defensive and confused—as if he knew only how to stand firm. He may have been strong, but even if he was, he didn’t know how to throw a punch. People who knew carried themselves differently.
The ginger beer dripped and fizzed down the trunk, along Angelina’s leg and the dog’s fur. The dog licked Angelina’s calf in furtive slurps. The compounded stickiness made her want to rocket through her skin. She stepped closer to the tall boy, holding the jagged edge flush with his throat. His eyes flashed crazy bitch—his fear was a tiny flame leaping on a wick. She remembered the late-night movies she’d mainlined on her laptop until her father’s footfalls passed her door: Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown, Kill Bill, volumes one and two. How the knife-wielding women moved so taut and controlled—and yet with a sense of play, a dance in how they bobbed on the balls of their feet, dipped their shoulders low, ready to surge forward.
“Go away. Now. Or I’m going to spit in your throat after I open it.”
The tall boy spat on the ground, inches from her feet. She did not look down. Did not look anywhere except his eyes. He shook his head, muttered, “Fuck this, fuck you,” and turned to leave with his buddies. Long after they’d become specks against the setting sun, Angelina stood there holding the bottle, wishing she could feel their most tender parts crushed by her kick, her fist. That wish was a long snake body that whipped out and pulled back, again and again. Then the dog wagged her tail; it thumped softly along the backs of Angelina’s knees, fanning a private breeze. The dog’s gift to her, sweet and cool.
“That seems a bit premature, don’t you think,” Angelina said. “For all you know, doggo, I’m no better than those assholes.”
Still, she walked toward her apartment, making soft kisses of “come here.” The dog followed her, lingered on her doorstep while she got the pitcher of water, the steel wool, and the roll of paper towels so she could clean off the car. The dog sat on the grassy patch of front yard, leaning on her sore haunch and panting. Angelina wet the paper towels before setting the pitcher in front of the dog, who drank in deep, unreserved gulps. When the dog lifted her head, Angelina marveled at the wolfish elegance of her profile. Her fur was mostly white, with a broad brown patch along her back. She had wide-set hips, a narrow waist, and a wide, densely furry chest; if she’d been human, hers would’ve been an Old Hollywood body. Her eyes were warm and dark, lined with fine black fur that gave her otherwise graying face the feeling of a femininity that was both brassy and sad.
“You should have a movie star name,” Angelina said. “Like Marilyn, but not Marilyn because that also doubles as a PTA chairwoman name.”
The dog snuffled about the concrete. Her snout lingered over the stickily drying patches of ginger beer before she decided all that good taste had already been spent. When she looked up at Angelina, her mouth opened in a loose, mild pant that seemed bemused and expectant, as if she were truly waiting on her name.
“I don’t think you’re a Mia or a Gia—those are little girl names. How about Francesca? No, that sounds like a nun. Sophia? Valentina?”
The dog responded with low, affable grumbles, sounds of contemplation. When Angelina suggested Valentina, the dog flattened her ears and belched.
“Okay, I’m going to take that as a sign. Valentina it is.”
Angelina didn’t even try to tell herself that she’d take the dog to a shelter or contact some rescue group. She knew, as soon as Valentina showed that she was already quite at home—submitting to a bath her first evening, patiently enduring Angelina’s one-handed fumbling with the baby shampoo and the shower nozzle, only losing patience as Angelina attempted to pat her dry with a towel and then shaking herself with a rapturous vigor; lifting herself onto Angelina’s full-sized bed and settling contently along the left side, the side where nobody ever slept, so unblemished by other bodies that Angelina had never even washed the pillow cover; and gently pawing at Angelina when she had to go outside—that she would keep her. Valentina had been somebody’s pet once. Just as she’d been somebody’s daughter.
Valentina’s paws moved in her sleep, the toes twitching in rhythmic precision as if pressing on piano keys. Every day, Angelina learned something new about the dog. That she didn’t howl in unison with police sirens, but she did flick her ears back in annoyance at those goofy viral videos of other dogs yipping to Christmas carols or “Single Ladies.” That she grumbled along affably, a kind of running commentary, Angelina imagined, about the smell of the rice and beans Angelina prepared for lunch and dinner, or a gentle admonition to relax and take a break after yet another job search engine crashed just before she could save her search history. That, when she was deeply at ease, she slept on her back with her paws splayed limply in the air. When Angelina read that dogs who were “comfortable and secure in their environments” slept that way, her chest and neck flooded with warmth—and that warmth, for once, was pride.
Angelina spoke in a low, can’t-wake-the-baby tone when she talked to Hunter, the insurance rep who was assigned to her “accident.” He didn’t sound much older than she was; his voice was bright and muscular with confidence. If she’d known him in school, he’d have been one of those nice-guy jocks who’d make a valiant attempt at working on a group project—nodding, somewhat reverently, as she pulled together the outline by herself, and making a great show of carrying the materials into the classroom. He might even ask her where she was from, and when she said “Baltimore,” ask her, in complete earnestness, if it was, “you know, like The Wire.”
On this call, Hunter asked for her “occupation” and she said, “Trying to grow a lotus in the mud.” The Oxy had left her system and her cells were steel traps. The only thing soothing her was the gentle heft of Valentina’s warm body pressed against hers.
“I studied art and I don’t even think I can paint now, not really,” she said.
“So, we’ll put your occupation as artist,” he said.
His voice ebbed on in the heavy warble. She scanned the walls of her apartment, where she’d hung pieces from her senior thesis show: models from life drawing class in stiff-necked Victorian get-ups, assuming stiff-necked Victorian poses as they sat atop packing crates on empty stages with a banner reading sideshow hanging behind them. She’d given the women antlers and the men fox tails. She’d tacked them up (hopefully? arrogantly?) beside framed prints of Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace, The Two Fridas, and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. But there was no dialogue between the works, only a series of hiccups and belches.
“So, I talked to your dad just because his name is on the policy. He told me that he’ll be handling the financial negotiations for the settlement. Said he wants to give you the time to recover. I assume that’s okay?”
The real question sheathed in his tone, in that ever-so-tentative but definitely palpable lilting of his voice on “okay,” was, “So, is he always like this?” And always like this was talking over whoever he was talking to, filling the air with words and the space between words with heat, that humid sky-rumbling sense that he was only waiting for you to stop talking so he could start again—because whatever he had to say mattered. You were standing in air that made you feel slightly nauseous with its thickness, waiting for the constant booming. Or maybe there was no question in Hunter’s tone; maybe she was just imagining it. Maybe her father had come across like any other Italian father of a certain kind of old school: a bit overbearing, sure, a bit loud, but fundamentally loving.
Of course her father wanted to handle the negotiations. Of course he wanted to be Michael Corleone as the door swung shut (or maybe Vito Corleone moving over the rooftops with a leonine assuredness after he shoots Don Fanucci). Of course she was nothing in her own pain.
“I mean, I’ll have input as well. After all, this happened to me.”
She tried to put some conviction in her voice, to hold it as long as she could, like taking a swallow of ice water and letting it linger as she stepped outside into a scorcher. Her father would be calling. Any moment now, which turned out to be almost immediately after she’d hung up with Hunter. Valentina put her head on Angelina’s lap and whimpered in sympathy.
“We have to talk strategy,” he said. “This could be good for you, bad as it is. I told the guy you were in too much pain to work. We need a settlement that could cover a month or two of lost wages—at least. I even said you might have to move back home over it.”
“I don’t think it’ll take that long,” she said. It can’t take that long.
“If you take anything now, you’re low-balling yourself. You don’t know what kind of medical bills you’re going to have.”
“I thought insurance covered most of it.”
He sighed. His I’m trying to be patient with you sigh. “Most of it. Not all of it. And you need to think about quality-of-life expenses.”
“My quality of life—”
“I know you want to live on your own. Believe it or not, I respect that. I do. But we need to string them along, let them think we could honest to God take them to court. No half measures, honey. I’m going to get you all that I can.”
At the dinner table, he’d always joked that he made a blood sport out of negotiation. Down payments were “lower than a snake doing the limbo” and yearly bonuses were “higher than my Uncle Tony on payday.” He’d laughed and mussed her hair when she said she didn’t understand. “Good,” he’d said. “And I wish I could kick the world’s ass, so you’d never have to.”
Mother reached over and playfully swatted him on the cheek. “Hey, buster, please say butt. You’re not the one who gets calls from the principal.”
He’d looked at Mother in a way that Angelina wouldn’t understand until she’d started watching old movies where an actor’s eyes had to evoke everything the censors didn’t allow. “Well, then, you tell him he can sit on it and spin.” Then they’d started laughing so hard that she had to take a drink of lemonade and he had to set down his fork. Angelina hadn’t even cared that she didn’t share in their secret, she’d just loved sitting in their glow.
“I’m not some kid anymore,” she said.
“You’re my kid. Always.”
Angelina felt a vise close around her left hand, and she heard the voice of the slim young doctor who’d bound her wrist, ring, and pinkie fingers in padding and plaster: “It’ll be snug.” Her middle finger, at least, was free.
“You know what I mean.”
“If this wasn’t a possibly life-changing amount of money, I wouldn’t be so involved. But it really is. And you need someone who can be a Grade A asshole to wrangle it for you.”
“I can be a Grade A asshole.”
“You’ve never dealt with attorneys and insurance people. You can be stubborn and sarcastic—or you can be set.”
“Do you really want me to come back?”
“It’d probably make your mother happy.”
He always told her that he could beat her at her own game (her game was, apparently, being stubborn and sarcastic). The only one he couldn’t beat was the only one he never knew about: the quiet game. She’d invented it as a child. She’d start herself with a score of one hundred and deduct twenty-five points each time she could hear her own footsteps.
There was something exhilarating about seeing how high she could arch on her tiptoes (admittedly, not too high; she was built like her father, brutal and squat). Days she retained her hundred points were thrilling. She’d never won anything in her life, except a best attendance trophy from the softball league that her father made her join when she was in the third grade, the one he’d tossed in the trash before they even got in the car. “Best attendance is what they give people with no talent.”
She begged off their phone call by saying she had to puke. Then, suddenly, she did. The excuse came into her mind and her belly obeyed. As she bent over the toilet, she pulled her own hair back hard enough to coax tears. Valentina followed her into the bathroom, yipping and crying. The dog forced herself into the narrow space between shower and toilet to lick up Angelina’s tears and the spit trailing down her chin.
The blood came roiling to Angelina’s face, not from the exertion of throwing up—from pure anger. Her body had betrayed her will, chosen dumb instinct over rational fact. She was grown now. There was nothing he could do to her. Not like before. Not since that day in the kitchen. If you put your hands on me again, I will kill you. She’d dreamt those words before she ever said them. She still dreamt them now. She’d wake up numb to everything but the hot engine of her heart.
Laura Bogart is a featured writer at The Week and a contributing editor to DAME magazine. She was a featured writer at Salon, where her essays about body image, dating, politics, and violence went viral and were regularly recognized as Editor’s Choice. She has written about pop culture, often through the perspective of gender, for The Atlantic, The Guardian, SPIN, The Rumpus, Vulture, Roger Ebert, The AV Club, and Refinery 29. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received the Grace Paley Fellowship from the Juniper Institute at UMass Amherst. Laura has been interviewed about body size and pop culture for NPR outlets. Don’t You Know I Love You is her first novel.