Stephanie Danler introduced scores of young readers to rosé and roast chicken through the eyes of a young waitress fresh out of college and new to New York in her debut novel Sweetbitter. However, you’ll find no shades of millennial pink in her upcoming memoir, Stray. While the book was written in the throes of Sweetbitter’s success, it perhaps speaks to the power of Danler’s fiction-writing to learn about the familial and romantic turmoil that was twisting tightly behind the curtain during that time. Split into three sections, Danler delves into the perpetrators of three separate traumas, with a keen eye for the ways these experiences have lingered in her own behavior as she finds herself turning into her own version of the monsters she’s escaping. One character in the following excerpt is literally referred to as The Monster and is the villain of an on-again, off-again love affair that never quite allowed Danler to find peace, if peace was even what she was searching for.
With a memoir like this, out May 19, it’s tempting to say Danler found her happy ending off the page. She welcomed a son last year, and is currently pregnant with her second child. But life isn’t a storybook. If anything, Stray teaches readers that our issues are only ever just a few chapters behind us.
Published with permission from Penguin Random House.
One time he broke into the house on Devoe Street in Brooklyn, removing the screen, scraping himself shimmying through the window. I was in the shower and screamed when he pulled back the curtain. He was ecstatic, overly proud of himself, and I laughed so hard I had to sit down. We didn’t talk about us. I stayed in the shower and he watched. Didn’t touch me. By dinnertime he was back in San Francisco.
In New York we met in the mornings to ride the train into the city together. He was on an extended work project and I had no fixed schedule, an interloper on the L train. I picked him up from his office at six and we’d discuss options like the train, or a ferry, or a drink. We commuted together for an entire month so we could sit side by side, hidden in plain sight. That was the month where I saw him every single day except two Sundays.
One time a plane ticket showed up in my inbox. We hadn’t spoken in six weeks, not since he blocked my phone because he and his wife were on vacation. The plane ticket was audacious, a dare. He can’t be serious, I told my friends. His smile when I arrived in Toronto with a backpack, a smile not of surprise but of confirmation: this story was about us, it would always be us.
When I was in Rome, six months into this affair, he told me he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t leaving her. I wept via Skype. Why do you keep coming for me? I asked. Because I love you, he said. He asked me to keep the computer on until I fell asleep and I did. He watched me, confused, and said, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as much as you do.
Forty-eight hours later he was in Rome and I asked no questions. We kissed on a park bench in front of the Fontana Paola for over an hour, as savage as teenagers. He carried me piggyback through the streets, the gardens on top of the Gianicolo hill filling with mosquitos around us. He emptied his pockets into the Trevi Fountain and swore I would be the mother of his children. I spent a lot of money buying us time. Whenever he failed to leave her, I booked a new ticket. I was making things easier for him, giving him space, not knowing that he’s a hunter who lives for a chase.
Even now I have no doubt that everything I’ve suffered, every accident and pivot, from my girlhood until now, has been leading me to him. It has crossed my mind more than once that I should not let him find me here in Laurel Canyon. And yet I’m cutting lemons on a stingingly blue morning, arranging them in a bowl, ordering singular sandwiches with extra avocado. I’m applying invisible makeup, laying out a patterned sundress because I know it will drive him insane.
We’re so close to our real life. He’s asked for a divorce. He’s here for a job interview. He’s here to see my new home, except he texts, Our new home, and I’m so scared that it was a typo I write, Ha. I tell myself that I won’t remember any of the pain. That we are going through a transformation of which amnesia is a blessed side effect.
I make the man behind the counter re-wrap the sandwiches because the first job was messy. It’s something the Monster’s wife would know, how to order his sandwich. I had to order better than her. That’s easy enough because I am uniquely adept at loving him. I am uniquely adept at dividing him into things his wife knows, and things I know. Don’t lie to me, I told him at the beginning. I can stomach anything but lies.
And when he tells me that he never lies to me, though I see him lie to everyone else, I believe him.
The Monster enjoys his sandwich. He doesn’t give a shit what’s on it. He takes a work call and I thoughtlessly undo his pants while he talks. Thoughtlessly. No, I can’t get away with that. I am full of thoughts. Thoughts of us referring to this blow job that he got while he was taking a meeting, when we’re growing old together and the patina of this affair’s misery has shifted to something bronze and noble.
When I come, I cry. When he comes, I cry again. When he tells me, with his pants still off, that he has to go pick up his wife at the airport because they’re going to Palm Springs with a group of friends, it was planned a while ago, I don’t cry.
Sooner is better, I say. No one can live like this.
I know, he says, looking at his hands, his ring. I can’t do this anymore.
When? I ask.
Soon. Really soon.
Soon, someday, maybe, our refrain. Probably this weekend, I think. Probably when they get home from this weekend. He’ll start a fight, he’ll be distant. Then he’ll say that he needs space. Or maybe he’ll just dive in: There’s something I need to tell you.
Let’s walk, I say.
We walk up Runyon Canyon and the night cools. I think he must notice that my legs are brown. I’ve been running obsessively. I look around at people hiking, sweating, talking into Bluetooth headsets, tethered to their animals, and I think about their small, weak lives, and I think, He picked me because I’m strong.
He picked me. No, I can’t get away with that either. I picked him too.
I’m late, he says.
You’re having an affair, you’re always late. I stall. You don’t want to come back and shower?
No, I really have to go, he says, and checks his phone. His background photo is of her at a concert and I still don’t cry. Numb, numb, numb, a breeze passes and my skirt flies up, and I will myself to be light. I’m not.
You’re going to go meet your wife with my pussy all over your face?
He looks at me seriously, like I’m trespassing, but doesn’t respond.
That’s who you are now? I say, with more force. You don’t care enough about either of us to clean up?
He doesn’t respond, and I hear, faintly from myself, That’s who he always was. He kisses me and I smell our sex on his lips, his cheeks, his eyelids, his earlobes.
He says something unnecessarily cruel, cruel to me, cruel to her, so shocking it’s funny, and gets into his car.
I laugh. I’m charmed by how he seems unafraid of being ugly. Charmed by how messy our sex is, like we’re drawing outside the lines, and all the degrading things we say and do seem to be closer to the truth of human nature. Charmed, perhaps by our superiority, though it feels to me as the months go on that I’ve made a terrible mistake. I can’t dwell on it, only continue soldiering on. I let him go and I drive up to Mulholland. I continue dividing my life into Times I Cried, Times I Didn’t Cry. I drive with the heater on and the windows down until the San Fernando Valley turns blue, then black, and the lights come on.
Excerpted from STRAY: A Memoir by Stephanie Danler. To be published May 19, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Danler.