The following excerpt from Moxie by Alex Poppe is reprinted here with permission from Tortoise Books.
Moxie – exerpt
I smell it before I see it. Can’t see anything behind the big bag of supplies I’m carrying. Was feeling accomplished that I remembered to buy Moxie-necessities on the way home before the smell of dog piss bitch-slapped me across the face when I opened my front door. At least Moxie skirts the puddle instead of running through it. I follow her lead. It’s easier than cleaning it.
Moxie noses my calves as I fill her bowl with dog food and set it near her impatient tail. ‘Sorry for the wait.’ Pour myself a Black Label and sit to watch her eat. Doggie gulping noises permeate the kitchen. ‘Slow down girl. A lady picks.’ I don’t pick. I point. At junk food in supermarkets or bakeries. I look and point and pretend I am going to eat something delicious, something bad for me. Sometimes, looking is enough. At least I’m not a puker like some models. I went to the souk that day to look at the dried fruits in the spice market. Wanted to point at rings of pineapple and wedges of mango and garlands of dates. Wanted to pretend I was going to eat them.
Moxie settles herself by my feet. She looks at me with these wide-open eyes. There’s a lump pushing up my throat, and I am tempted to kick her. Her blind trust fucking pisses me off. Grabbing my drink, I open the kitchen window to sit on the fire escape. The night hushes.
The sky has gone inky. From its depth, a single star watches. Looking at my reflection in the kitchen window, I see a faceless girl staring back at me. I want to wake up in her body. There’s a hard, blank feeling inside me. I should sleep. When I was an up-and-comer, I never slept. Didn’t want to miss anything. It’s different now.
The sheets are cool as I slip in between them. Fucking hate sleeping alone. I sleep on only half the bed. Used to love it, back in the day when there were a lot of admirers. Back then, I needed the quiet. Now the quiet riots. Rewind and rewrite tonight as my fingertips stroke my stomach. I am not a boyfriend thief, so in my version of reality Aaron does not have a girlfriend who lives with him. My fingertips tickle up to pinch my nipples. My tits are full, my nipples erect. He says I am beautiful, not was, because he sees past the candy shell. Because he misses parking lot salsa lessons and being read to in the bathtub. My hand slides down. Inside I am smooth and slippery. I roll over and grind my pelvis. Pictures flash – Jeff’s cock, sucking Aaron’s bottom lip, some guitarist’s head between my thighs. Tongues pushing more and more and more. My pelvis hooks. An extended present tense. I taste the pillow with my grimace. My body slackens. The ability to speak returns. There is the static noise of silence. My pillow smells sad. I miss so much: middle-of-the-day sex and lying face to face sharing a pillow. Fuck, I miss resting my cheek against my hand. The pillowcase irritates. I turn over toward the window. The sky has lightened. Four black birds fly in a diamond formation against a white sky. How do they stay together? Even lovebirds get divorced. Flying is a cool superpower, but I would choose instant regeneration.
My mouth tastes the way the front hallway smells. Fucking need to take care of the Moxie mess. Like now. I am on my hands and knees with paper towels and piss-soaked journal pages before breakfast. Living the life. Fuck, I miss maid service. That was a great perk of living in model apartments. The agency puts five young hopefuls in a too-small space, competing for the same jobs, and expects them not to kill each other. There is always an odd number of housemates: provides a built-in moderator. I lived in one in Paris. Between the hair-pulling and the tears, there were some moments.
Vive Le Paris! Jeff came over for a visit. All the other girls are like mad in love with him. Who wouldn’t be? He’s like totally hot and nice and cool and 24! Plus, French Vogue just hired him. And he likes ME! He says he like “discovered me” and he’s real proud of it. Mom would FREAK if she heard that because she was my first agent. Anyway, I don’t care because it is summer, and I’m in PARIS, and the night sky goes on forever, and I’m in love!!! I haven’t said it yet or anything because I’m not like totally stupid, but it’s love.
On Friday nights parades of people skate around the Canal Saint Martin. We usually watch them from our balcony. Zaina and Elena (Zaina is from Beirut and has the best hair. Elena is from Kiev and is the skinniest.) got booked on the same shoot and bought us all blades! (They had ten pages of editorial for Italian Elle! Jealous ☹) I haven’t scored anything as big, but I feel like it’s coming. On Monday I have a go-see for some Pirelli calendar. Whoever that is. Anyway, we drank some Voov Cli Co champagne, donned our skates, and off we went. It was electric. The five of us held hands as we skated, a daisy chain of pretty girls. Nobody was elbowing each other out. I feel like we’ll be friends forever.
But the really big news is this. Wait for it ☺. Jeff and I. Hee hee hee. I was really scared because I knew it would hurt, but Jeff was really gentle and patient and like showed me what to do. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know, but I think he got off on that. That he could make me the way he wanted. I finally feel like I belong to someone.
There is the clip-clip-clip of tiny paws behind me. The soles of my feet receive a tongue bath. ‘Morning Toe Licker,’ Picking up Moxie, I breathe my dragon breath in her face. She barks. ‘Let’s go buy a ball.’
Fuck, that sun is bright. Moxie has decided to take her morning dump in front of the entrance to the Brooklyn Fleas. She has no shame. Of course not. She’s not the one bent over, picking up warm squishy dogshit with a sandwich baggie.
‘Jax! I’d recognize you anywhere,’ a voice addresses my ass. ‘Girl when did you get a dog? You can barely take care of yourself.’
‘Yesterday.’ Turning around, I spy Frieda’s locks before I spy Frieda. Everything on Frieda has been added: hair, fingernails, breasts. She’s a trannie makeup artist with an identical twin brother named Frank. I wonder how long it took for their mother to stop calling ‘Boys…’ when she wanted both of them. ‘This is Moxie. Moxie meet Frieda.’ Frieda’s one of my few before and after friends.
‘How you feelin’?’ She takes my chin and turns my face to look at both sides. Her silver bangles jangle. ‘Did you see the doctor I told you about?’
She gets away with touching my face because of her six-inch height advantage. And because she was on that Marrakesh shoot. ‘Yeah. Yesterday.’ I wriggle free. She was having tea with a carpet seller at the hotel at the time of the blast. She visited me almost every week during my recovery to give me a mani/pedi. No one asked her to.
‘Girl, you look like shit. Even for you.’
Can’t argue with that.
‘When’s the last time you ate?’
She’s right. ‘So don’t ask.’
‘Want to have brunch?’
‘Can’t. I have shit to do.’
‘Right. Like you’re so important.’ Frieda never sugarcoats it.
‘Fuck you. I have to get Moxie a ball.’
‘So get her a ball after. Girl, starving yourself to death is going to take a while. ODing is much quicker.’
‘Fuck you. I don’t starve myself.’ Besides, I’ve already decided on hanging. If I were to.
‘Fuck you.’ Frieda sounds like a junior high cheerleader. ‘Fuck you.’
I don’t sound that whiny.
‘Fuck you-ou.’ Frieda’s bopping about as she sings it. ‘Fuck youuu. Hoo-hooooo.’ She grabs my hands and makes me dance along with her, snapping my rubber band. ‘Class bling. Let’s go to Meatballs. You can drink your lunch. Like Moxie, I need me some balls in my mouth.’ Frieda’s laugh sounds like a delicious secret.
Bending down to ruffle Moxie’s fur, I hide my smile. Sometimes it’s easier to give in.
After brunch, liquid and otherwise, Moxie and I stroll through McCarren Park. Frieda has a date. Dating – more like snacking. I don’t know why Frieda appointed herself my fairy godmother, but I am grateful. She’s hooked me up for a prop styling gig next week, which is good because I need something to do.
What the fuck am I going to do with the rest of my life?
Me: Hi. Is this Lost and Found? I’ve lost my way.
Lost and Found: Have you checked the places you were? You probably left it there.
Me: I can’t go back to where I was. They won’t let me in like this.
Lost and Found: I know. Look, it’ll turn up. I always find my iPhone at the wine bar across the street from my apartment.
Me: Can you just look? It’s shiny gold and leads to the top.
Lost and Found: Aren’t you special? Those are one in a million. Yeah, no. It’s not here. You should have taken better care of it in the first place.
Me: But, it’s not my fault it’s gone.
Lost and Found: Isn’t it?
Me: Look, do you know where I can buy a new one?
Lost and Found: Do I look like Information? Kindly step aside Ma’am. You’re holding up the line.
Shit, my rubber band is gone. That bitch must have lifted it during the “Fuck You” dance. Despite her Emily Post posture, Frieda’s always had sticky fingers.
An African drum ensemble starts up on the far side of the park, grabbing Moxie’s attention. She’s strong when she wants her way. A small group of people gather around the musicians, dancing. I recognize Jules playing a modest drum near the center of the cluster. Jules is a protest artist whose big moment came when Jay-Z bought one of his paintings. That moment went. Jules’ hands slap the drum skin, his long, thick fingers splayed. Feeling a tickle rise between my legs causes me to look away from his lapping fingers. I dated Jules for a minute, a lifetime ago.
‘Hey, do you want to dance?’ An unfamiliar voice calls from behind.
I turn toward it and fix on a face volcanic with acne. Glittering eye contact. ‘Sorry, I have to go.’
Back home, I feed Moxie and sit with my friend Johnnie Walker. I need to kiss someone in the worst way. To put all of who I am into lips and tongue and touch. Kissing is underrated because it’s all about the before. People rush that. They don’t get that kissing is hope.
Who am I kidding? I need to lose myself in a good lay. Shut out thought and time and place for however long intense foreplay and a heroic orgasm last. I swear, I am ready to call an escort service and order a totally hot guy who stares not and sexes sweet. Not like the last hookup who grabbed a pillow to smother me as I came, and then squirted in my face as he lifted the pillow. I choked and he laughed. Like I wasn’t a real person. To him, I was only the shape of one. I don’t expect breakfast, but some people are too rough to fuck. It’s a fine line deciding whose standards are low enough. Like it fucking matters. In the dark you become whomever they want. Then in the end, you’re left with who you are. Jesus mother fucking Christ! I can’t stand it inside my head.
With nowhere to go, I go to Alat’s.
Sans Moxie, I sit at the air-conditioned bar and watch Alat work. He doesn’t say much to anyone. He’s probably killed people. How he does not drink the entire contents of the bar baffles me.
‘I feel you watching me.’ Alat has his back to me polishing glasses. Must be his child soldier instincts kicking in.
‘No, I’m not.’ I smile like a receptionist at his back.
‘Why are you always here alone?’ He picks up a knife and starts cutting lemons.
‘I’m not always alone. Yesterday I had Moxie.’ And Aaron, sort of. ‘You’re always here alone. Why doesn’t your girlfriend ever visit you?’ Figure girlfriend is the safer bet.
‘My wife is at home with our sons.’
Eights words tell me more about him than half as many months of patronage. Where’s his ring? ‘Did you meet her here?’
‘Muslim women do not usually frequent bars.’
Who knew he was religious? ‘Did you know her from Somalia?’
‘She knows about my past.’
‘That’s not what I was asking.’ Of course, I deny it.
That lump is back, clogging my throat. What I really want to know is how he put himself back together. Half-true. I want to know how to put myself back together. Johnnie Walker isn’t telling.
‘Jax, it’s time to grow up. You’ve had so much more than most.’ Alat’s eyes are shiny; his voice is not unkind. ‘Beauty doesn’t feed you.’
Uh, in my case it did. My before-life purls like a junkyard mobile.
‘Who are you going to be?’
I have no idea. I used to be so many people.
Alex Poppe is the author of the debut novel Moxie (2019) and the story collection Girl, World (2017). Girl, World was named a 35 Over 35 Debut Book Award winner, First Horizon Award finalist, Montaigne Medal finalist, and was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize. It was also awarded an Honorable Mention in General Fiction from the Eric Hoffer Awards. Her short fiction has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest, a nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and commended for the Baker Prize. Her non-fiction was named a Best of the Net nominee (2016), a finalist for Hot Metal Bridge’s Social Justice Writing contest, and has appeared in Bust and Bella Caledonia. She is an academic writing lecturer at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (soo-la-mani) and is working on her third book of fiction with support from Can Serrat International Art Residency and is an artist in residence at Duplo Linea de Costa.