“Hot Crying Girl” by Stephen Markley

11Sep09

Sometimes they simply give you the wrong name.

By “they” I don’t mean your parents or society or the federal government, I just mean the vague, amorphous “they” that seems responsible for more or less everything. I’ve spent most of my life thinking everyone’s name is wrong: Myself, my wife, Dana, our children. Both my daughter, Eliza and my son, Raymond were named without much thought by parents still too shell-shocked at the sight of this purple and pink, gunk-covered screaming thing to stop and think of a fitting word to call it for the rest of eternity. This disconnect between the given name and the feelings a person raises and needles inside of you began for me in college when my roommate John brought back the picture from his trip to D.C.—the picture of Hot Crying Girl.

Speaking of poorly chosen names, “John” was a terrible one for John, who was a chauvinist, the kind of guy who referred to women in strictly derogatory terms, who slept with as many women as he could and discarded them with barely concealed glee. John did not deserve this Biblical, heroic name. He kept women in different cities the way some rich people keep multiple vacation homes. He was a venture capitalist of emotionless, high-risk sexual encounters. It was on one of these trips that he took the picture without realizing it.

We sat in our living room and took turns with it, Derek and I. Derek was our third roommate, and his name also did not suit him. Derek was not a chauvinist, but he did sleep with a lot of women, most of who ended up getting bored with him when they found out his likes (Discovery Channel, cereal, working out, marijuana) and his dislikes (cleaning). In that last sentence I literally described everything anyone ever needs to know about Derek.

The picture was supposed to have been of two girls mugging for the camera with cans of beer, but the photographer—likely John himself—seemed to have tripped or stumbled and the picture caught only the elbows and hands of the two girls. In its dive through space, the camera had instead captured a third party in the background.

This girl sat upright in a hard wooden chair, her knees clasped together, her hands clenched in the air in front of her face, her eyes wrenched together into slits foreshadowing future crow’s feet at the corners many years down the road. She had long brown hair, a smallish, geometric nose that came to a box-like point, and a prominent chin that gave her face the look of an actress.

She was the most beautiful thing—plant, animal, or mineral—I’d ever seen.

Keep in mind, this all took place years before I met Dana after dumping a drink on her during a party in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. I was still just a kid, easily entranced by the site of a lovely young woman, yet this young woman deserved a far better adjective than “lovely.”

Derek commented on how hot she was. John agreed with a cackle. I pulled the picture from his hand so that I could get a closer look at this individual, recorded permanently in some moment of awfulness she surely wanted never to relive.

“I don’t even remember you from that party,” John said to the picture after snatching it back from me, “But I wish I had gotten a chance to know you, hot crying girl.”

After that, her name was Hot Crying Girl. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty remarkable that John had not chosen in that moment to call her Hot Crying Bitch or Hot Crying Slut, and thus brand her that way for the rest of time.

John attached the picture to our refrigerator by magnet. Personally, I did not like displaying it like that, but it was John’s picture and he had a right to do with it as he pleased. At first I wished I could take it down and throw it in a drawer without either Derek or John noticing. I found myself staring at the young woman in my odd moments: During the morning when I ate my breakfast while standing or while I cooked dinner or sometimes I would make trips to the kitchen, forget what I was there for and leave only after my eyes took in the photo for one fleeting moment.

I was bothered by this exhibition of someone else’s misery, but I also hated the name: Hot Crying Girl. Sure, it described everything more or less accurately, but it felt almost like a betrayal. From the picture, anyone could sense that there was more to this story than just an attractive young female caught unintentionally in a private moment. The name, I felt, debased her, made her unremarkable, a trifle, but then maybe that’s why John chose the name and Derek and I stuck with it. Somehow it made her easier to dismiss, an easily digestible novelty. One time I asked Derek why he thought she was crying.

“Who?” he asked. This was remarkable because I had just brought up the picture in the previous sentence, even referring to Hot Crying Girl by name. I repeated myself.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably her boyfriend canned her.” He went back to eating his cereal. All Derek ate was cereal. All he had in his allotted cupboard space was cereal: Honey Bunches of Oats, Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, Kashi Crunch, Lucky Charms. He normally ate three bowls of cereal for dinner, starting out with an appetizer cereal like Kix, moving on to a more substantial entrée cereal like Shredded Wheat, and then finishing with a dessert cereal like Captain Crunch, after which he noisily slurped the sludgy, browned milk from his bowl. I guess it was a bit optimistic to have expected any deep philosophical insights from Derek.

I thought of Hot Crying Girl’s story often, and in the process my imagination ran wild. The broken heart was my starting point, the bad break-up the default assumption. This explanation never satisfied me, however, and I lay awake at night—only occasionally, I like to think—inventing new scenarios that spiraled higher and higher into the realms of improbability.

This young woman had recently heard of the death of someone close to her: A parent, a sibling, a friend, a kindly grandfather who used to take her for ice cream at a small corner shop just outside of his New York apartment and still called her by a childhood nickname a decade after she had outgrown it, maybe something like “Smappy.”

Or maybe she had just found out she was pregnant with the child of a boy she no longer loved. Or maybe she had just gotten word of her sister’s miscarriage. Or maybe her childhood home had burned down. Or maybe she’d been fired from her job. Or maybe she had herpes. Or cancer. Or Lyme disease. Or her dog had cancer. Or maybe the picture had simply caught her in a moment when she was overwhelmed by the inherent sadness of a world so violent and cruel where people can be so viciously bad to each other without so much as blinking, where it seems a sickness, a meanness, a darkness can blot out the sky and overwhelm every last fiber of hope and love God ever coaxed from Creation.

What I’m saying is there could be a ton of reasons.

All I knew for sure was that these tears were not the products of happiness. No one was engaged, no one was having a child, and no one’s HIV test had come back negative. I simply had some fundamental assumptions I could not shake when drawing up my wild and varied explanations, including 1) these were tears of sober anguish. Hot Crying Girl was not drunk or hysterical, which for me, made the jilted lover scenario less plausible. And 2) she was a good, kind person.

Why assume this? Aren’t plenty of people as ugly on the inside as they are pretty on the surface? It wasn’t just because she was beautiful. Sure, her breasts rose in a curve under a sleeveless lavender shirt in a way that positively set my dreams and flesh on fire, but like Tom Petty says, a woman’s body is only flesh and bone. They’re made up of the same sinew, cartilage, marrow, hair, epidermis, veins, red cells, plasma, and muscle fiber as any other mammal. No, her tears and her grief seemed to hint at some underlying goodness of soul or spirit—this was how my thinking went.

Thus I fell in love with Hot Crying Girl.

Now, I know what you’re saying, which is the same thing John said when I told him. “You dumb cunt. You can’t fall in love with a fucking bitch in a picture. You have no idea who this bitch is. She could be a whore for all you know. She could be a dyke. She could lick pussy. She could suck every cock that gets near her. She could take it in the ass from every swinging dick at this college. Fuck, Bill, I mean, fuck, man. She could be a Republican.”

Well, I hope you wouldn’t say the exact same thing John said. You see the point, though, which is that you think I fell in love with the idea of a girl rather than the girl herself. It’s easier to love an idea because that idea can shift and morph according to the idea-owner’s own preconceived notions. This girl could be everything I had ever missed in the other women I dated. Everything I ever wanted: Smart, funny, independent, loves extremely violent action movies and skiing. We could save our money and take vacations in Aspen where we could hit the slopes by day and watch Predator 2 by night. This is what you think I think.

But somehow, not knowing anything about her was better because of the possibilities it left open. She was a clean slate, and rather than imposing what I would want drawn on that slate, I saw her delicate face glistening with tears and relished the thought of learning her flaws. Maybe she snorted when she laughed or only watched romantic comedies or made vaguely racist comments from time to time without thinking of it. These were the things I wanted to learn.

I went as far as e-mailing John’s friend in D.C. to ask her if she recognized the girl. I didn’t know what I would do if I tracked her down. Ask her why she was crying in the picture? Explain that I thought she was quite stunning? Tell her I thought her tears made for one of the most striking images I’d ever seen in my short life and that when I looked at her in this picture I found myself in the grip of a feeling that wasn’t quite lust or longing or remorse but some fluid combination of the three that breathed life into me with fierce and unstoppable force? That in her face I saw a strand of something transformational that can usually only be glimpsed when that perfect song is playing at the perfect moment? That her face made me want to dive into roaring flood waters to save a drowning child, made me want to hand every dollar’s worth of my worldly possessions to the first vagrant I saw on the streets, made me want to donate every last strip of my skin to a burn victim?

And would I say all this over the phone or broach the topic by e-mail?

It turned out not to matter because John’s friend had no idea who the girl was. She told me she would ask around, but there had been a lot of people at that party. In her reply e-mail she sounded creeped out by me, if it’s possible for three grammatically poor sentences to convey uneasiness.

John reassured me. “That bitch is probably a psycho anyway. Who goes to a party and cries like that?”

“She’s just Hot Crying Girl,” added Derek. “Can’t that be enough?”

The worst part was that it had to be enough, so I threw the picture away.

Her name—Hot Crying Girl—was a dreadful moniker, simultaneously trite and insulting. It lacked all compassion and dismissed whatever story lay behind this accidental image. Yet I soon came to realize that if I found out her real name, no matter what it was—Ashley, Megan, Jane, Gertrude—this name would somehow be worse. This name her parents had given her would lack the power, the mystery, the pain of Hot Crying Girl. Even if this name was all wrong, she was Hot Crying Girl—forever confined to this moment, trapped in this gasp of wretched sorrow and unbearable anguish. Even if she existed somewhere else, which she surely did, she would forever remain in this time and place, likely without even knowing it—this beautiful, weeping young woman. And even if I recognized all this, even if my feelings for the picture were nothing like Derek or John’s, who the hell was I to keep her trapped this way?

A day later I waded through the dumpster behind our apartment for half an hour. I pulled the picture out after spreading the contents of five trash bags across the alley. A corner had bent into a crease and the picture was covered in coffee grinds and what I hoped was dried ketchup, but none the worse for wear otherwise. I folded it up and put it into my wallet where it resides to this day. I only take it out in the moments of quiet between life’s storms: In the hospital waiting room after Eliza was born and Dana still asleep. In the bathroom of the funeral home after my mom died. In the twilight of our living room after Dana told me she had been with someone else. Right after we undressed Ray and put him in the little hospital gown the nurse had handed us—a quick dig through my wallet like I was looking for a forgotten receipt before my boy went to get a tumor cut from his lung. In the bathroom at an amusement park after we all stepped off our ride on the Ferris wheel, Ray bounding along noisily, Dana’s hand lingering on mine a moment longer than it needed to. I could stare at the picture and still feel all those things I had felt the first time I ever laid eyes on it in a crummy college apartment. When I finished looking at it, the sensation was always the same: I would fold the aging picture back up, slip it into my wallet, and feel the world resume all around me—my head drifting for minutes afterward with love and sadness and mystery.


Stephen Markley is a writer for the Tribune Company’s RedEye and the ChicagoNow blog “Off the Markley,” at www.chicagonow.com/blogs/off-the-markley. He also writes for Cars.com’s blog KickingTires and his work has appeared previously in The Weber Studies Journal, RadarOnline and Private Investigator’s Magazine. His first book, “Publish This Book” is due out in March 2010 from Sourcebooks. Learn more about Stephen at www.stephenmarkley.com.

To read Stephen Markley’s comments on Ian Penrose’s “The Send Off,” click here.

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Notes from April Galarza, Associate Editor
I read two stories in the New Yorker yesterday “Hot Crying Girl” reminded me of both. One was about the amazing power of a photo to capture a moment, an emotion. The other was about a wife fantasizing about her husband’s mistress. The secret world of her expectations and imaginings became blended with what we knew to be the truth. The same can be said for this story.

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Comments on this story by Willy Nast, author of “The Long Room”
“Hot Crying Girl” really sneaks up on you. Using the narrator’s conversational tone and the chuckle-inducing musings of his old college roommates, Markley lulls readers into a false sense of security. The narrator’s wild imagining of the reasons behind Hot Crying Girl’s tears forces us not only to read tragedy into a character we never meet, but also to read tragedy into John’s chauvinist behavior and Derek’s bowls of cereal. In the end, these implied tragedies amplify the impact of the narrator’s own downfall: his inability to connect intimately and fully cope with real life, a life not quite up to imagination or expectation.




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