by Bonnie Altucher
When Bridget was sixteen, she met a sardonically mumbling School of Visual Arts dropout named Robert Fein while they were both browsing for cheap shoes on Eighth Street. Robert was too bug-eyed and slight to be handsome, with dim pitted skin and a puffy, disconsolate pout, but something in his manner convinced her that he would be a safe and desirable person to know. He had his own place at the edge of the devastated East Village neighborhood not yet blandly rechristened as Alphabet City, and within weeks of their first meeting Bridget moved in with him.
Bridget assumed that her father would be happy to get rid of her. By now, he barely reacted to the steady stream of failing grades on her report cards, his stock objection—“This isn’t very acceptable”—being vague enough to pass for a comment on the deplorable New York City public school system. So she was unprepared when he hotly objected to her moving out to live with a pair of fictitious “NYU girls” whom she claimed to have met last year in Forest Hills.
He glared at her, desperate. “I could always get A’s with my eyes closed, without even opening the book.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Well, that’s mature. Go and make fun of it.”
“We have the baby to take care of. And Martina doesn’t want to put up with you anymore, if it means you are going to—”
“I get it! We know Martina makes the rules! Don’t want to mess with Martina! So once I get out of your way, your life will be easier. You’ll have the perfect family! I’ll be out of your hair, absolutely. Oh, no, I forgot! You don’t have any!”
In her bedroom she packed the clothes that still fit her, her mostly blank diaries and a few favorite children’s books. She felt edgy and vengeful, as if she were shoplifting her own things. How many years had she spent in this room, playing long, lonely doll games, or reading while watching TV? Nobody had ever come to see what she was doing until Jessica learned how to walk. Now she was out in the playground, so at least Bridget wouldn’t have to physically detach herself from the cherubic twenty-three-month-old, who mysteriously adored “Widget” and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Her father had retreated into his own room, and after a moment of eerie hesitation, she left without saying goodbye. She already felt darkly ashamed for making that crack about his baldness, but too insecure—would he care?—to apologize.
After she dropped her bags inside his apartment, she waited on Robert’s mattress while he uncorked a black bottle of cheap champagne. In the drunk and stoned sex that came after, she wondered why she wasn’t more swept up in this symbolic moment. He might as well have carried her over his threshold. She was electrified, also unsettled, by the abruptness with which she had exited childhood. She had just turned seventeen.
Living with Robert—locally known as Bobby Fear—reminded Bridget of an Elvis song, playing an X-rated version of house with a pomaded rock singer who wasn’t much older than she was. He seemed to have hundreds of friends. Not because he liked people that much, she discovered, but hated spending one minute alone, so that he made her accompany him everywhere, to his boring band rehearsals in the Flower District, to cop from his dealer in Tompkins Square Park, and to shop for his B-movie wardrobe of alpaca sweaters and silvery sharkskins. They dyed their hair together over his tiny kitchen tub and he painted her toenails a glistening garnet. They would stay out all night and devoured a counter egg breakfast before falling into his single bed just as morning had started to roast the apartment. By two they awoke for sex, languid with heat and hangover, and then, over Sweet Sixteen donuts and cafe con leche, they would critique the bands on last night’s bill and compare notes on the books and filmmakers they loved and their childhoods. And Bobby would talk about drugs, which Bridget could mostly take or leave, though they interested her because he was so into them.
He turned her onto his favorite: opium, a big deal to score. One evening they huddled over a saucer, Bobby heating the resinous dab with a glowing tip of hanger-wire, while she sucked the exotically revolting smoke through a toilet-paper tube.
“Hold it in.”
She swayed with her eyes closed, spine rippling with pleasure, till he guided her backward to their bed. Each time she felt she was falling, warm currents cradled and lifted her, over again, like a Ferris wheel tilting deliciously back.
On stage, Bobby transformed himself, stylized, demonic. He was the founder and lead singer of a band called Anatomically Correct. While his deadpan bandmates fine-tuned their industrial feedback, Bobby danced with seat-ripping abandon at the stage’s edge. He screeched disturbing baby-talk at any scantily dressed female drunk enough to have ventured within spitting distance of the stage, and otherwise assumed kung-fu-inspired stances that could only invite vicious heckling. As the tension mounted he leapt onto teetering tables with catlike precision, defensively stamping at “fans” with his sharp-toed boots while taunting all the “honky retards from New Jersey.” Despite his being a honky himself. From New Jersey. He had a hiply eclectic audience of neighborhood scene-makers, horn-rimmed culture critics and belligerent outer-borough types, all of whom probably shared the same baseline desire to see him get his ass kicked. “Oh, I’m not going to be stuck in this kind of venue for long,” he assured Bridget who dreaded the worst till the house lights went up. And he was beginning to get local press coverage. Girls he claimed not to recognize would call out his stage name as he strode with Bridget around their neighborhood, all of them dressed to kill in 1950’s cocktail-wear they scooped up for nothing in thrift shops.
She occasionally earned twenty dollars off the books by typing NYU term papers or writing sales slips behind the counter at The F-Stop, a tiny, fascinating photography bookshop whose real bread and butter (“seductive esoterica discretely conveyed”) was advertised through academic journals. But mainly her day draped around Bobby’s. She pasted up club flyers, waited bleary-eyed until the distribution of the door take, and spent hours dissecting her boyfriend’s impossible nature with friends who were both sick of, and helplessly loyal to, him. Sometimes he would hurt her pride by failing to try to conceal his tacky backstage infidelities, but even these humiliations seemed pro forma, a part of her job description.
By their second year together she began to weary of her Bobby-centric existence. Not that she was tired of Bobby, whom she considered the love of her life and best friend. But shouldn’t she find her own thing? Some girls she knew were developing their own creative gigs. And sometimes they also worked in massage parlors or peep shows to cover the rent. Some wouldn’t talk about what they did; others nihilistically flaunted the part in harsh lipstick and tights like torn spider-webs. Bobby escorted her to an acquaintance’s Chelsea photo studio so she could get paid three hundred dollars to pose nude for porn pictures while he read Philip K. Dick in the front office. On waking that morning she’d ingested a Quaalude to help her get through it, so that the whole scene went flabby, collapsing in places like an old balloon. She hadn’t thrown up when the affected young pornographer, a Luckies pack tucked in the sleeve of his tee shirt, disdainfully tossed her a stuffed bear and told her to “cream on it.” She just pitched it back to him and rolled onto her stomach. But she did vomit when she got home, on the floor of their bathroom, and then screamed at Bobby to clean it up. Which he did, and after she refused to let him come near her.
Her mother turned out to be receptive to Bobby, who shamelessly flirted by asking her to name her favorite Italian film director, or whether she thought he needed an eye exam, holding her by the arm on Broadway so that they could compare their ability to decipher bawdy newsstand headlines from a distance of several feet. Helen seemed amused, even seduced, by Bobby’s nerve, though she said she would like him better if he hadn’t influenced Bridget to drop out of high school. At her repeated urging, Bridget applied for her GED. A year later, she was admitted to Hunter, where she majored in English, a little embarrassed by this wimpy default of a major, but what did she want to do but read very long novels, and mull over what she had read? And what was her long-term goal, other than finding one? She trained to earn more as a word processor.
She enjoyed writing papers but for the next two years it was as if she were pacing a tightrope while balancing two unrelated personae: the sleep-deprived undergraduate who rushed to a series of part-time jobs and researched “Theatricality in Moll Flanders” under buzzing fluorescent lights at the school library, and the raccoon-eyed underground girlfriend posing upstairs at the Mudd Club in tight brocade dresses, black opera gloves, peeling fake pearls. She partly savored the incongruity, though she worried it meant she would never fit in anywhere.
Bobby left on a four week European tour, and returned with a serious habit. Well, how many great artists had been addicted to something? He kept wheedling Bridget to let him fix her too, bragging about his deftness with a hypodermic. “They call me ‘the doctor,’” he repeated, eyes agog, like a bit actor in a movie about drug addicts. For a moment she considered giving in, since his desire to initiate her seemed so much greater than hers to refuse. Then it occurred to her that he might be subconsciously interested in “accidentally” killing her. This suspicion vaporized with the speed of a dream, but a residual queasiness made her pull away.
“Okay, but you aren’t one.”
Her friends were tired of hearing her complain about Bobby. Well, what was Bridget supposed to do? There was a barbed hook connecting them. She still thrilled to his reckless persona on stage, as if he were her own looming shadow, an untethered twin, who could slither up walls and pounce over the ceiling. But if she was carrying cash in her purse. she had to take it with her to the bathroom.
Certain experiences were said to restructure the brain, like those ducklings imprinted for life on a cardboard mother. And real mothers were left with the cells of grown children woven into their own biological tissue. When Bobby drifted in sleep on her breast she could feel her heart painfully draining and filling at one time, as if they were two beings maintained in a lifelong transfusion. How did anyone ever manage to say goodbye, even if only to go the post office?
Eventually, Bobby lost his record contract. His band members quit. At Bridget’s insistence, he qualified himself for welfare and began a methadone program, which made him gain weight, transformed overnight to a toad from an elegant tadpole. The cause was edema, whole buckets of sub-dermal fluid, a methadone side effect. Wasn’t it partly her fault?
“You think I’m never going to move out,” she warned him. “Don’t count on me staying dependent my whole life!”
“Why not?” He looked bored. “I don’t mind.”
One day, as casually, he proposed marriage. “Relax. Just for the benefits. Not because we care.” Benefits? Was he serious? She was only twenty-one! She didn’t want to be married and living on public assistance.
Then came the opportunity she had unconsciously awaited: approval of an extra student loan coincided with an invitation to crash in her best friend’s apartment. With Suzanne’s help, she moved her most precious belongings while Bobby was out at the clinic. But sneaking was pointless. The drug made him passive, indifferent. When she returned the next day for the rest of her stuff, he watched from their bed with his cheek on the mattress and only one eye and his mouth moving.
“Arrivederci.” His voice at half-speed, mocking her. “Au revoir. For now, baby.”
What if she was never able to connect with anyone again? What if he couldn’t either, and no one stepped in to watch over him? She furiously stuffed papers and books into two shopping bags and a backpack.
Then she stood under the shabby old heaven of Houston Street watching a gold wave of freshly-gassed taxis competing to get to her first.
During the first months after she moved out Bridget was too busy and anxious to miss him, trying to complete her coursework while word-processing at Merrill on evenings and weekends. Then she heard Bobby was back on heroin, skinny and practically handsome again, resurfacing in a Prince-inspired wardrobe and makeup and living with a rawboned ex-model who made leather rock and roll pants. Mutual friends reported they were performing a weird cabaret act of an intense smarminess no one could swear was intentional. Despite this report, which she received in scornful disbelief, she was beginning to be visited by a recurring dream-specter, one she wouldn’t shake for years, with wounded, contemptuous eyes, with Bobby’s familiar erection and mouth, whose game it was to invade her with longing and fade in the same waking instant.
Bonnie Altucher grew up in New York City and has also lived in Paris and North Oakland. She received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her poetry was published in Roof Magazine, and she has been awarded residency fellowships in fiction from Macdowell, Ucross, Ragdale and VCCA. In 1998 she founded and edited Documentmag, an online journal about documentary filmmaking. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and daughter. “Bobby Fear” is an excerpt from her soon-to-be completed novel about a therapy cult in New York in the ’60s and ’80s.